Two relatively unploughed fields of battle have now opened in Washington, DC for America’s most adept media manipulator. While President Donald Trump’s public 2017 fights with critics and erstwhile friends were largely limited to TV and print media, the worlds of books and movies have now been added to the public frenzy that is the current US presidency.
Significant parts of Trump’s first year in office were devoted to an ongoing feud with an institution deemed for years to be in a fatal, downward spiral – the newspaper business. Trump’s scuffles and accommodations with the notorious New York City daily tabloid newspapers, the Post and the Daily News, have made headlines for over 35 years. But he reserves by far his most vitriolic hatred - and grudging admiration - for the closest thing to America’s newspaper of record, the New York Times.
Treating the Times as he does everyone and everything else, Trump quotes the newspaper when it agrees with or flatters him. When, with increasing frequency and noticeable venom, it disagrees with or vilifies him, he lashes out at the “failing New York Times”.
Trump has often picked fights with television commentators, talking heads and pundits for similar reasons. Notable is his fascination with MSNBC “Morning Joe” host and former Florida Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough, whose show Trump reportedly watched regularly. Now, though, Scarborough has unleashed numerous highly critical salvos at the president, including via Op-Ed pieces in the Washington Post. Trump has of course returned heavy fire.
Now, books and movies have become fair game. First up is “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” a gossipy recounting of Trump’s first year in office told by a longtime habitué of the New York scene, Michael Wolff. Wolff has a somewhat uneven reputation as a reporter whose veracity has occasionally been challenged. But his work has appeared over the years in some prestigious publications, the New York Times among them.
“Fire and Fury” has caused a sensation, jumping almost immediately to the top of best-seller lists. Release of the book by reputable publisher Henry Holt was advanced and bookstores quickly sold out.
The book is not flattering to the current US administration. Claiming to draw upon hundreds of interviews with key insiders, most notably now defrocked presidential confidant and adviser Steve Bannon, “Fire and Fury” paints a picture of incompetence, unpreparedness, venality and willful ignorance that bears an uncanny resemblance to the impression many Americans already have of this presidency.
Wolff cites and in some cases recycles assessments of Trump and his family from close advisers. In its book review, the Washington Post reports from the book that National Security Adviser HR McMaster allegedly called Trump a “dope”.
Former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said Trump is an “idiot”.
Media tycoon and noted conservative political profiteer Rupert Murdoch called the president a “(bleeping) idiot”.
Top economic adviser Gary Cohn described him as “dumb as (bleep)”.
And so forth.
Bannon is quoted describing Donald Trump Jr’s meeting with Russians at Trump Tower in June 2016 to explore material possibly damaging to Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy as “treasonous”.
Bannon has now been loudly and publicly excommunicated by Trump and his son. Trump Sr said Bannon “has lost his mind”.
Quietly, almost stealthily, as the furore has raged over Wolff’s book, a new movie has been in limited release. The movie, called simply “The Post,” features perhaps the two most acclaimed American actors of this generation, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. It tells the story of the 1971 release of the Pentagon Papers, an unflattering secret US government history of the American war in Vietnam, which did not end until 1975. The classified documents were leaked first to the New York Times and then, more famously, to the Washington Post. The US Supreme Court ultimately ruled the newspapers’ right to publish the Pentagon Papers was protected by the First Amendment to the American constitution.
The timing of movie’s release does not seem coincidental. As Hanks told HBO in a video interview helping to publicise the film, the story of newspapers and other resisters pushing against gross abuse of executive power and misrepresentation of that abuse feels disarmingly similar to what is happening today.