How author Michael Wolff got his 'fly-on-the-wall' access to the Trump White House
Michael Wolff's decision to publish 'Fire and Fury' after Trump's lawyers filed a cease-and-desist letter was an unprecedented move. Here's why.
WASHINGTON — Eight days before President Trump's inauguration, reporters crammed into the lobby of Trump Tower to chronicle the comings-and-goings of diplomats, CEOs, lobbyists and former campaign officials — many of whom would become future White House officials.
The one reporter who crossed the press gauntlet that day to make his way to the elevators was Michael Wolff, a long-time New York writer, author and media executive. Asked whether he was meeting with the president-elect, Wolff just smiled.
Upstairs, Wolff said he told Trump he'd like to write a book. "A book?" Trump responded, according to an account Wolff published Thursday in the Hollywood Reporter. "I hear a lot of people want to write books."
Over the next few months, Wolff would get similarly conspicuous access at the White House. With his distinctive bald head and New York fashion affectations, he stood out from the throngs of Washington media seeking inside information from Trump's inner circle.
Armed with a blue "appointment" badge from the Secret Service — unlike the grey press badges that gain access to the press briefing room — he walked into the West Wing and, he says, took up semi-permanent residence on a couch in the lobby, where he could see the daily interactions of top players in the Trump White House.
Adding to the intrigue, the White House now says that it was Trump's chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who signed off on most of Wolff's access.
That "fly-on-the-wall" access has now resulted in what's become the most explosive tell-all book of the Trump presidency so far — Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.
How explosive? The book portrays Trump as ignorant and mercurial, and his White House as in a near-constant state of chaos.
Trump denied Wolff had such open access to his administration, tweeting late Thursday, "I authorized Zero access to White House (actually turned him down many times) for author of phony book!" and insisted he never spoke to Wolff for the book.
Trump's private lawyers threatened the book's author and publisher Thursday, demanding that they retract the allegations and pull the book from the market. (Instead, the publisher moved up publication four days, from next Tuesday to Friday.) White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called the yet-to-be-released book "complete fantasy and full of tabloid gossip."
A longtime fixture in New York media circles — with stints at New York Magazine, Vanity Fair, the Hollywood Reporter, USA TODAY and the Guardian — Wolff has spent most of his career examining the intersection of business, celebrity and media. That often put him in the same circles as Donald Trump.
The White House says the upcoming book that paints an unflattering portrait of President Trump and his administration is 'disgraceful and laughable." (Jan. 4)
"This man is only tangentially a businessman. What he does is exploit himself," Wolf said of Trump in Vanity Fair in 2004, as Trump's Apprentice television franchise premiered.
Wolff, too, has shown a penchant for promotion over the years. A television commercial promoting his column for USA TODAY showed an executive jumping out a window and yelling, "This is off the record!" rather than talk to him. "Read Michael Wolff," the narrator said, "and thank your lucky stars he's not writing about you."
Wolff's column appeared in USA TODAY from 2012 through January, 2017. His second-to-last column was headlined, "Media stumped over how to cover Trump."
But Wolff's work has also brought complaints about embellished or made-up quotes.
"I think you have to look also at this author's track record in which he's had a real problem with this in the past," Sanders said Thursday.
Steven Brill — who like Wolff is a New York author, writer and journalism entrepreneur — alleged in 1998 that Wolff's treatment of Silicon Valley, Burn Rate: How I Survived The Gold Rush Years on the Internet, "invented or changed quotes" and suggested he even invented a composite character from three different AOL executives. Wolff stood by his reporting.
In the introduction to Fire and Fury, Wolff attempts to head off inevitable questions about the veracity of his stories. "Many of the accounts of what has happened in the Trump White House are in conflict with one another; many, in Trumpian fashion, are baldly untrue," he wrote, saying he would allow readers to figure out which were true and which were false.
An excerpt of Wolff's book in New York Magazine contained an editor's note explaining that Wolff conducted about 200 interviews over 18 months.
The White House has downplayed the amount of access Wolff got.
"In fact, there are probably more than 30 requests for access to information from Michael Wolff that were repeatedly denied," Sanders said. They included two dozen requests to interview president, she said.
"We saw him for what he was, and there was no reason to waste the president of the United States's time," she said.
Wolff did not respond to requests for comment.
The White House, reversing President Obama's transparency policy, has refused to allow the release of visitors records that would show who signed off on Wolff's access. But Sanders said Wolff had "just over a dozen interactions" with White House officials, and almost all were at Bannon's request.
The book quotes Bannon as saying that the July, 2016 meeting by Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower was "treasonous," and portrays Bannon as a sort-of presidential puppetmaster.
In an extraordinary statement Wednesday repudiating for cooperating with the book, Trump portrayed Wolff as a tool of Bannon. "Steve was rarely in a one-on-one meeting with me and only pretends to have had influence to fool a few people with no access and no clue, whom he helped write phony books."
Sanders led off Thursday's press briefing with a video message from Trump touting the tax cut legislation he signed last month. But the questions, for the second day in a row, were dominated by the fallout from the book.
The American people, she said, "could care less about a book full of lies and would really like to hear more about the booming economy, the crushing of ISIS, all of the great things that are happening in this country."
"I don't think they really care about some trash that an author that no one had ever heard of until today, or a fired employee wants to peddle," Sanders said.