While I was eating breakfast at the Four Seasons in Georgetown on Tuesday morning, a veteran Washington journalist stopped by my table to say hello. “Nice to see you,” Michael Duffy, a former editor at Time, deadpanned, with a grin on his face, before introducing himself as “Mark Berman, Washington Post.” As inside jokes go, it was pointed and perfectly timed. As everyone at the table knew by now, Mark Berman of the Washington Post has never been to the Four Seasons for breakfast, despite the fact that “Fire and Fury,” Michael Wolff’s new tell-all book about life in Donald Trump’s dysfunctional White House, says that he has.
For the past week, all of Washington—and, indeed, much of the country, judging by the book sales—had been reading, digesting, and debating the book, the ethics and accuracy of Wolff’s journalism, and the horrifying details about the naked-emperor-in-the-Oval Office President that he exposes. The book’s scathing portrait of an incompetent, incoherent, “semi-literate” wild man in the White House has, understandably, gotten most of the attention—especially since Trump took personal charge of the effort to discredit it. The news on Tuesday afternoon that one of Wolff’s main sources, the former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, had lost his job running the conservative Web site Breitbart after his falling out with Trump was sure to keep the “Fire and Fury” tempest roiling.
Amid such an uproar, the matter of Mark Berman’s nonexistent breakfast at the Four Seasons hardly ranks. Still, even among the many errors in the book, some big and many small, this one stood out. It was the kind of mistake that only someone who doesn’t know Washington could have made—the kind of mistake that matters to a small handful of D.C. players. And it prompts readers to ask, If Wolff got the small things wrong, did he get the big things wrong as well? The Trump White House has seized on such mistakes to call into question the book’s damning, and mostly accurate, larger portrayal of this Presidency.
Wolff had the wrong Berman. His book’s account of a breakfast at the Four Seasons last February, when Trump’s daughter Ivanka dazzled the wary natives in their natural habitat, should have named Mike Berman, a heavy-hitting Democratic lawyer and lobbyist who arrived in Washington, in the nineteen-sixties, as an aide to Walter Mondale. In D.C. terms, mistaking a Washington fixture like Mike Berman for a young national reporter at the Post with the same last name is a pretty big deal. Washington is a village, a small town, a one-industry kind of place—and it takes itself very seriously. For at least the past couple of decades, breakfast at the Four Seasons has been the city’s canteen, its water cooler, the place to go when you want everyone to know whom you are having breakfast with. You can’t get the names wrong. That’s the whole point of the exercise.
When I called Wolff shortly after my breakfast at the Four Seasons to ask about the book and the controversies it has spawned, he proudly declared, “I am so not a member of this club.” A New York author and columnist previously best known for a scathing, insider-y takedown of the media mogul Rupert Murdoch, Wolff told me that, as he reported “Fire and Fury,” he had spent little time talking to, or worrying about, “the permanent establishment” of Washington.
He did not go to the Four Seasons for breakfast or to Georgetown cocktail parties for gossip. He said that he came down from New York, checked into the Hay-Adams Hotel, across Lafayette Square from the White House (where rooms, according to the Web site, start at more than three hundred dollars a night), and got to work, which by his account largely consisted of hanging out in the lobby of the West Wing of the White House, acting as a fly on the wall. Occasionally, Wolff allowed, he consulted with Mike Allen, the well-sourced journalist, whose daily e-mail newsletter for the Web site Axios often features leaks from the Trump Administration, as well as a “relatively small group of insiderish people, people who have been helpful to me.” But that, Wolff insisted, was it as far as his contacts with the permanent denizens of the Washington swamp that Trump promised to drain.
It’s clear that Wolff used his outsider status as a selling point with the members of the Trump team whom he persuaded to coöperate—and that they did so despite his long-standing willingness to break much crockery, and even basic rules of honesty and fairness, in the pursuit of a story. Go back and read Michelle Cottle’s 2004 profile of Wolff in The New Republic: she nailed it.
But, at least in public, Wolff affects an almost breezy disregard for indictments like Cottle’s—and such accounts didn’t stop major figures in the Trump White House, including the President himself, from talking with him. When I asked Wolff about the book’s factual errors, like the Berman mixup, he was dismissive, saying that he saw them as more or less irrelevant to the larger truths that he had told about Trump. Mostly, Wolff talked like a man who couldn’t help but marvel at his own good fortune: he’d written a book that he thought might just bring down the President—and he was making a killing.
Wolff pointed out that, as of the close of business on Monday, a million copies of the book had sold in just four days. “I’m going around saying, ‘It’s just a book,’ but it has become something so much larger,” he said, citing Trump’s attacks on the book and his failed attempt to prevent it from being published. “The President seems to think this book is some kind of significant threat, and that changes the context,” Wolff said. “Whereas with a regular book, a Mike Berman for a Mark Berman . . . would have been of no consequence whatsoever, now it’s suddenly a state question.”
But, I asked, what about the facts? Wolff’s attitude about them struck me as, well, a bit Trumpian. Would he fix mistakes in the next edition? “Yes, sure, the Bermans will be sorted out,” Wolff promised. But he still seemed to think that I was missing the point. “Fire and Fury” was like a Bob Woodward book, he insisted: a revelatory, scoopy backstage account of the White House with no sourcing or footnotes or explicit attribution. “The reader is basically going to have to trust me on that, or trust his own sense of, does this comport with everything else he knows?” Wolff said. “That’s how you get an inside portrait.”
Besides, Wolff added, all the second-guessing about details like who was at breakfast tended to obscure the fact that the book provides a vivid portrait of Trump based upon on-the-record quotes from formerly close advisers like Bannon and Katie Walsh, the former White House deputy chief of staff. Even Wolff’s critics seem to accept that his over-all portrayal of a dispirited, demoralized White House, where many senior aides loathed and feared their boss, was basically correct. I asked Wolff if he had started out planning to portray Trump so harshly. “I had no preconception,” he said. “I was perfectly willing to write a ‘Trump can be successful’ kind of thing, a contrarian view that is reasonably up my alley. Then I just started to listen to these guys, and they started to talk to me, and it was like, ‘Oh, God!’ These senior people say, ‘Do you have any idea what it is like to work for this man?’ ”
We spoke a few hours before Bannon lost his job at Breitbart, but already it was clear that Bannon was under enormous pressure because of the scathing insights he had shared with Wolff about the President and his hyper-entitled daughter Ivanka and son-in-law, Jared Kushner. I noted that Bannon had belatedly apologized to Trump, but that he did not deny any of the quotes that Wolff attributed to him. “He hasn’t disavowed anything,” Wolff said. “He can’t, and he’s not going to.” As Wolff sees it, Bannon’s gradually rising dismay is the real theme of the book: “I saw Steve grow more disillusioned and angrier about what was happening in the White House—about the kids, about the fact that Trump really had no allegiance to Trumpism, or Bannonism, or whatever you want to call it.”
In the end, Wolff said, he had concluded that Trump’s big failure was to keep thinking that what worked for him in New York would work in a very different sort of city. “Washington is an institutional town. Those institutions are going to rise up, and, in the end, they are going to crush this guy, or they are certainly not going to give way to this guy,” Wolff told me. “He plays a New York game, and the New York game is, I can sell you anything—all I have to do is get attention. He’s a real-estate hustler, and that works in New York.”
Wolff may have Trump’s number, one New Yorker to another. His reporting certainly comports with many of the accounts of the President that I’ve heard and read in the last year. But I came away thinking that Wolff would have benefitted from a bit more Washington in telling the story of Trump’s adventures in the Potomac swamp. It’s a unique subculture with world-class champions in self-serving, name-dropping, and other political sports; Wolff didn’t need to join the club to capture it better.
Take that Four Seasons breakfast that Wolff didn’t quite get right. I happened to be there on the morning of Friday, February 3, 2017, when Ivanka Trump, swathed in a tight, sleeveless sheath dress, high heels, and cocktail-party-voltage makeup, sent the normally staid room of pant-suited Washington lawyers and lobbyists into what can only be described as a tizzy. She was having breakfast with Dina Powell, a former Bush Administration official with impeccable Washington-establishment credentials, who had just started work with her at the White House, and Indra Nooyi, the C.E.O. of PepsiCo, who had been persuaded to join a new White House advisory council of business executives.
Wolff fails to note that Trump was eating with Nooyi, and there were at least three other errors in his short account of the meal, including the identification of the tycoon Wilbur Ross as Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Labor, rather than Commerce, and misspelling the first name of the Democratic pundit Hilary Rosen. Do those small errors matter? Maybe, maybe not. Wolff can fix the spelling and delete the sloppy little factual mistakes. Nobody was really hurt, and his basic point about the irony-laden spectacle was correct. The Post’sMark Berman will even get a free breakfast at the Four Seasons from his editor out of the mistake, he told me in an e-mail when I asked about the incident. (“According to a lot of friends I’ve heard from about this thing, the breakfast there is just stellar,” he wrote.)
But Wolff also missed out on what I thought was the morning’s most telling vignette: when Ivanka Trump finished breakfast and table-hopped around the room with Powell, who introduced her to the curious Washington heavyweights. Here was the literal, actual moment when the purportedly moderate Ivanka met the Beltway establishment—and it appeared as though the city might yet find a way to do what it does best, which is accommodate itself to power, even of the most unlikely sort.
Of course, it seems crazy to have thought so, even briefly, given where things stand now. Ivanka Trump, as I write this, is being savaged on Twitter for daring to think of herself as the progressive women’s advocate she used to be before her father arrived in the White House. The C.E.O. council that Nooyi joined disbanded after President Trump’s remarks about Charlottesville. Powell, once seen as the establishment’s voice within the White House, has quit in what her many friends around town say is dismay.
But that was all still to come on that February morning, when that breakfast still seemed to matter, when the swamp creatures still held out hope that this was merely an unusually bizarre Presidential transition and that the town would adapt to the new boss, as it did every four or eight years, no matter how quirky or outlandish.
The most dramatic scene of Ivanka Trump’s short visit to the Four Seasons came shortly after 9 a.m., when Trump and Powell said hello to three men seated at a table by the window. The dining room seemed to silence collectively, as if to overhear what was being said when Powell introduced Trump to the foreign-policy brain trust of her father’s vanquished opponent, Hillary Clinton. Tom Nides, who had served as Clinton’s Deputy Secretary of State, shook Ivanka’s hand, smiled, and made a joke. “This is the Resistance,” he said, referring to himself and his two breakfast companions: Jake Sullivan, who would have been Clinton’s national-security adviser, and Ben Rhodes, Barack Obama’s deputy national-security adviser and for years himself a scathing critic of the Washington establishment. “Good luck with that,” Ivanka cheerily joked back.
The friendly banter and smiling repartee by the President’s polished, liberal-seeming daughter looked so . . . normal. So Washington. It was exactly the sort of thing that you’re supposed to do at the Four Seasons for breakfast. Maybe, just maybe, the swamp creatures thought, things wouldn’t turn out so bad after all.
But, of course, Wolff’s book fills in the rest of the picture. There would be no normalizing this White House, unlike any that came before it. Ivanka and her husband, Jared—“Jarvanka” in Bannon’s unflattering nickname—would be blamed for some of the President’s most questionable decisions and overruled repeatedly when they tried to pull their father in a more moderate direction.
The moment may have been a fleeting one—but it was quickly recorded for posterity. Which may well be the point, after all, of going to breakfast at the Four Seasons. An item in Politico’s Playbook the next morning listed the names of twenty-two breakfasters, including Mike Berman. When another Politico colleague, Annie Karni, wrote a news story about the First Daughter’s networking breakfast a few days later, she was able to cite information from “more than half a dozen sources who were there.”
So, yes, a few more facts might have made Michael Wolff’s mind-blowing revelation of a book at least a bit better. And all he needed to do in this case was Google them.