Michael Wolff is cashing in at last. After a long career as a magazine writer (for New York, Vanity Fair and GQ), the 68-year-old has in recent years become one of a handful of journalists with a global profile. In 2018 his book Fire and Fury shot to the top of bestseller lists on both sides of the Atlantic, offering unparalleled access to the key figures behind Donald Trump’s anarchic presidency. Wolff had spent a year drifting in and out of the White House, seemingly at will, leveraging pre-existing relationships with Trump’s lead adviser, Steve Bannon, and with the president himself. The book sold 1.7 million copies in three weeks.
Two Trump sequels followed: Siege and Landslide. Now, in an apparent bid to catch the last of a wave, Wolff has released another book: Too Famous, a collection of previously published essays on the politicians and media moguls who have defined the past 20 years, from Hillary Clinton to Harvey Weinstein. For now, Wolff is finished with the former president. “If I have to write another Trump book I would have to shoot myself,” he told me over a video link from New York, where he lives with his partner, Victoria Floethe, and their two young children.
Still, Wolff is convinced that Trump will seek the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. Polling suggests that if he does, he could be the runaway favourite.
“I would then expect the campaign to be a fiasco,” Wolff said, pointing to Trump’s two previous bids. In 2016 Trump appeared to have given up on his own campaign by August – “he had virtually abandoned it, he was refusing to put any more money in” – while in 2020 he was vastly outspent by Joe Biden.
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Wolff is astonished that January’s Capitol Hill riot did not end Trump’s political career. “There he is, rising again, from January 6! Everybody – his people, his family, the Republican Party – thought, ‘OK, the train has finally crashed.’” I asked Wolff, who listens to questions with his fingertips pressed together to form an arch, what might be different this time. “Trump is never different,” he said. “It is always the same.”
They spoke for his most recent book, Landslide, and Wolff was not reticent about the encounter: “He’s absolutely stone stupid. I think he is literally crazy, off his rocker. But that is combined with the fact that he is information-free. I mean that he really knows nothing about anything. He has almost set out not to let anybody tell him anything. You can see it in his eyes – he has no idea what you’re talking about. When you’re with him you go, ‘Oh my God.’”
It was not always so. Video clips from the 1980s, when Trump first flirted with the idea of a presidential run, show someone who is boastful and possibly malicious, but evidently not stupid. And Wolff has in the past been more generous to the former president: a 2015 essay in Too Famous describes Trump as being, in person, “almost soothing” (“his extreme self-satisfaction rubs off”).
This has long been the criticism of Wolff: that he is too easily taken in by the eminence of his interviewees, from Trump to Rupert Murdoch, a biography of whom he has also written. At a time when many younger American journalists are calling for “moral clarity” in reporting, Wolff eschews such judgements. He does not call bad men bad. He does not see it as his role.
“I’m a magazine journalist,” he said. “The talents I bring to this are descriptive. I can create a scene, I hope.” His job, he says, is to “let the reader have the experience” of being in the room with each interviewee, rather than to dismiss them. In one of his Too Famous essays he describes Steve Bannon as a tragic figure. “Bad men have the same amount of pathos as good men,” he explained. “That is the point of being a human being.”
For Wolff, it is more important to know the people at the top of the political and media worlds – “to live in the world you are trying to write about”. Many journalists, he notes, “pride themselves on being on the outside”, but he thinks “you’ve got to swim with the fish”. He mixes the metaphor, recalling an editor who told him to “get into the traffic and you’ll be hit by a car” – a car meaning a source as invaluable as Bannon, who introduced himself to Wolff after recognising him at an airport in 2015. “I had a set of relationships that culminated in something,” said Wolff of the book that transformed his career at a time of life when many careers end.
His journalistic path was littered with false starts. In the 1980s, Wolff told me, he was living a life of abject “self-loathing”, failing to write a novel. He had shown enough promise as a young magazine writer in the 1970s to land a book deal, but the project broke him. He spent “six years producing a first page every day”. A Wall Street friend eventually took him aside, telling him “you have become an embarrassment to everyone that knows you”. He started Wolff on a second life as a media “deal maker”.
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By the 1990s Wolff was running a premature internet media company (Wolff New Media) that soon collapsed. But the misadventure gave him what he had lacked as a novelist: material. The bestselling memoir that followed, Burn Rate, told the story of how Wolff blew a lot of money that was not his own attempting to do a job he was not fit for, and landed him a career as a media columnist. Bannon became one of his many readers.
Wolff’s Too Famous includes two essays on Boris Johnson written in the mid-2000s, when Johnson was editor of the Spectator (one is titled “The Sextator”). Johnson’s act charms Wolff – or, as Wolff might like to put it, he gives the reader the experience of being charmed by Johnson. He was prescient about Johnson’s appeal: “The great mass of people,” he wrote in 2004, at the height of the technocratic 2000s, “prefer almost anyone to a politician.”
Seventeen years later, Wolff continues to marvel at Johnson’s propensity “to ignore or blithely travel through” the errors that befell other politicians. He offered a theory. “Politicians are, from an emotional standpoint, dead on arrival,” he said. “It’s almost the craft they have perfected: you can’t know me and you can’t see through me, and I’m going to be successfully hidden from you except for the very small window I’m going to choose to expose. Boris and Trump have gone in the other direction: take it all, we hide nothing, we’re not ashamed.”
“We want to see ourselves” in our representatives, Wolff said. “When [Johnson and Trump] get away with something, we would like to be able to do that.” Wolff has wanted to get away with some mistakes of his own. In Fire and Fury, he insinuated that Trump was having an extramarital affair with the then UN ambassador Nikki Haley, who rejected the allegation. Wolff later distanced himself from the statement. When he was asked on Australian television if he owed anyone an apology, he abruptly claimed he could no longer hear the interviewer and walked off set.
The exchange did nothing to quiet a criticism long levelled at Wolff: that his ability to create a scene has, at times, been too great; greater, perhaps, than the facts have warranted. But that charge, however accurate, has not slowed him. Michael Wolff became the court chronicler of the Trump era – an era that may soon return.
“Too Famous” is published by Little, Brown
This article appears in the 09 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special