Trump's White House: Headless chooks and cunning foxes

5:00 pm on 5 January 2018

By Phil Smith*

While bombs fall from Michael Wolff's tell-all book, inside the White House headless chooks demonstrate both Trumpian 'decorum' and machiavellian cunning, writes Phil Smith.

US President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House.

US President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House. Photo: AFP

'It never rains but it pours' describes both New Zealand's summer, and Washington news.

On just one day this week:

  • A new Democratic senator was sworn-in, narrowing Republican control.
  • Indicted Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort sued the Justice Department.
  • The Voter Fraud Commission was disbanded.
  • The Head of the FBI met with the Speaker of the House.
  • We heard a psychiatrist has been briefing lawmakers about Trump.
  • Steve Bannon described Don Junior and others as 'treasonous'.
  • And the President described Bannon as mad.

So much for 'not much news happens round Christmas'.

And then, the very next day, the White House showed it has the media cunning to play 'take out the trash' with the best of them. But more on that later.

The important thing in all that news was probably the new senator, but it chose a poor day to get attention. Instead the front pages focused on the Bannon-Trump slap fest, like this one from the tabloid New York Daily News:

So much for decorum. You might wonder, like many in the West Wing, how this could happen. Gentle reader, some background....

Wolff in a chook house

Michael Wolff is a journalist, but not in the 'just the facts ma'am' mold. The Washington Post has described him as a "provocateur and media polemicist".

Mistakenly, the White House thought he was 'their' polemicist, after Mr Wolff ingratiated himself by criticising the media portrayal of the new president. This opened doors.

Lots of doors. He has described himself as a "constant interloper" in the West Wing. AP correspondent Zeke Miller concurs, tweeting that he often saw Wolff wearing a blue appointment pass (allowing access to the West Wing), rather than the more restricted grey press pass.

And now the book that all that access led to has arrived. Amongst Wolff's claims is that Trump neither expected, nor wanted to win. The result apparently made Trump blanch and Melania cry.

So certain was defeat that some in the campaign reportedly played ignored the law (on, say, foreign influence) because no-one investigates the loser.

Unprepared for victory, the fledgling White House was disorganised and dysfunctional. Perfect time for a Wolff to get in among the bewildered chickens and document them.

Who opened the chook house door?

Republican commentator Meghan McCain has asked why no-one was guarding the hen house.

White House staff are turning over at such a rate of knots that the culprit is likely long gone. Former Press Secretary Sean Spicer seemed keen on CNN today to bring a noose to his own lynching, saying "there were times I screwed up".

Michael Wolff has claimed access was granted and encouraged by the President himself. A claim that left Ms McCain to write "Lunacy. Sheer lunacy. They get what they deserve then."

Target number one

The White House's response to the book so far has focused on just two quotes from former strategist Steve Bannon.

Mr Bannon is quoted as saying that the Trump Towers meeting between Don Junior, Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner and the Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya was "treasonous", but Donald Trump would certainly have been in on it.

And also that the Trumps will go down as a result of money laundering.

Donald 'my button is bigger than your button' Trump fired back that Bannon had "lost his mind", and anyway, he had nothing to do with any of Trump's success. Which might translate as 'there's only enough credit in this train wreck for one narcissist'.

To make Bannon's day worse everyone else has piled on, with even Bannon's walking war chest, the Mercer family, publically disavowing him.

The White House claimed it was all fake news, while Trump's lawyers oxymoronically sent out a cease and desist notice, asking Steve Bannon to stop contravening his non-disclosure agreement.

Bannon's opinions were not the only revelations.

According to Wolff, President Trump makes sport of attempting to destroy his friend's relationships in an effort to bed their wives.

And apparently Ivanka and Jared Kushner have decided that Ivanka will be president. Which, if true, would be miraculous considering the coalition of voters that eked out Trump's narrow victory included large numbers of misogynists and anti-Semites. A Jewish woman would hardly be their ideal candidate.

The Dishonest Media Awards

Just before the book story broke, Donald Trump had previewed the "Most Dishonest and Corrupt Media Awards of the Year".

Whether the awards or the media are dishonest and corrupt is a grammatical afterthought, but with The Donald as the judge you might imagine Michael Wolff will sweep the categories.

What does any of this signify? Is it even news? Yes, because even slow motion train wreck are important if they have the potential to engulf you in fiery wreckage.

And according to the psychiatrist (Yale University psychiatry professor Dr. Bandy X. Lee), that has been briefing lawmakers on the president's mental health, 'He's going to unravel, and we are seeing the signs.'

But that story too was subsumed beneath fallout from Michael Wolff's book. And not just that news was buried.

Cunning in the Melee

According to Michael Wolff, descriptions of the President from his own people included "dope", "idiot", "an idiot surrounded by clowns", "dumb as shit" and "f**king idiot".

Whether or not they are correct, someone in the White House is definitely smart.

Amid the distraction of tit-for-tat character assassinations, the White House also took out a lot of trash, announcing things it wants ignored while no-one is paying attention.

Amongst them is an embarrassing failure - the demise of Trump's Voter Fraud Commission, a transparent but incompetent attempt to further repress voting by pesky left-leaning demographics (minorities, the young and the poor).

The policy announcements include a vast increase in offshore drilling, and that the Justice Department will no longer look the other way while individual states legalize marijuana in contravention of federal drug policy.

So, the chooks may have unknowingly hosted a Wolff, and caused a feathery furore, but there's at least one wily fox still in the chook house.

* Phil Smith is an award-winning journalist who has reported for RNZ from China, India and Australia. He has spent far too long revelling in the byzantine minutiae of American politics.

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs