Authors: Michael Wolff
Kushner’s Office of American Innovation employed, as its spokesperson, Josh Raffel, who, like Hicks, came out of Matthew Hiltzik’s PR shop. Raffel, a Democrat who had been working in Hollywood, acted as Kushner and his wife’s personal rep—not least of all because the couple felt that Spicer, owing his allegiance to Priebus, was not aggressively representing them. This was explicit. “Josh is Jared’s Hope,” was his internal West Wing job description.
Raffel coordinated all of Kushner and Ivanka’s personal press, though there was more of this for Ivanka than for Kushner. But, more importantly, Raffel coordinated all of Kushner’s substantial leaking, or, as it were, his off-the-record briefings and guidance—no small part of it against Bannon. Kushner, who with great conviction asserted that he never leaked, in part justified his press operation as a defense against Bannon’s press operation.
Bannon’s “person,” Alexandra Preate—a witty conservative socialite partial to champagne—had previously represented Breitbart News and other conservative figures like CNBC’s Larry Kudlow, and was close
friends with Rebekah Mercer. In a relationship that nobody seemed quite able to explain, she handled all of Bannon’s press “outreach” but was not employed by the White House, although she maintained an office, or at least an officelike presence, there. The point was clear: her client was Bannon and not the Trump administration.
Bannon, to Jared and Ivanka’s continued alarm, had unique access to Breitbart’s significant abilities to change the right-wing mood and focus. Bannon insisted he had cut his ties to his former colleagues at Breitbart, but that strained everybody’s credulity—and everybody figured nobody was supposed to believe it. Rather, everybody was supposed to fear it.
There was, curiously, general agreement in the West Wing that Donald Trump, the media president, had one of the most dysfunctional communication operations in modern White House history. Mike Dubke, a Republican PR operative who was hired as White House communications director, was, by all estimations, from the first day on his way out the door. In the end he lasted only three months.
* * *
The White House Correspondents’ Dinner rose, as much as any other challenge for the new president and his team, as a test of his abilities. He wanted to do it. He was certain that the power of his charm was greater than the rancor that he bore this audience—or that they bore him.
He recalled his 2015
Saturday Night Live
appearance—which, in his view, was entirely successful. In fact, he had refused to prepare, had kept saying he would “improvise,” no problem. Comedians don’t actually improvise, he was told; it’s all scripted and rehearsed. But this counsel had only marginal effect.
Almost nobody except the president himself thought he could pull off the Correspondents’ Dinner. His staff was terrified that he would die up there in front of a seething and contemptuous audience. Though he could dish it out, often very harshly, no one thought he could take it. Still, the president seemed eager to appear at the event, if casual about it, too—with Hicks, ordinarily encouraging his every impulse, trying not to.
Bannon pressed the symbolic point: the president should not be seen
currying the favor of his enemies, or trying to entertain them. The media was a much better whipping boy than it was a partner in crime. The Bannon principle, the steel stake in the ground, remained: don’t bend, don’t accommodate, don’t meet halfway. And in the end, rather than implying that Trump did not have the talent and wit to move this crowd, that was a much better way to persuade the president that he should not appear at the dinner.
When Trump finally agreed to forgo the event, Conway, Hicks, and virtually everybody else in the West Wing breathed a lot easier.
* * *
Shortly after five o’clock on the one hundredth day of his presidency—a particularly muggy one—while twenty-five hundred or so members of news organizations and their friends gathered at the Washington Hilton for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, the president left the West Wing for Marine One, which was soon en route to Andrews Air Force Base. Accompanying him were Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, Reince Priebus, Hope Hicks, and Kellyanne Conway. Vice President Pence and his wife joined the group at Andrews for the brief flight on Air Force One to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where the president would give a speech. During the flight, crab cakes were served, and
Face the Nation’
s John Dickerson was granted a special hundredth-day interview.
The first Harrisburg event was held at a factory that manufactured landscaping and gardening tools, where the president closely inspected a line of colorful wheelbarrows. The next event, where the speech would be delivered, was at a rodeo arena in the Farm Show Complex and Expo Center.
And that was the point of this little trip. It had been designed both to remind the rest of the country that the president was not just another phony baloney in a tux like those at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (this somehow presupposed that the president’s base cared about or was even aware of the event) and to keep the president’s mind off the fact that he was missing the dinner.
But the president kept asking for updates on the jokes.
t’s impossible to make him understand you can’t stop these investigations,” said Roger Ailes in early May, a frustrated voice in the Trump kitchen cabinet. “In the old days, you could say leave it alone. Now you say leave it alone and you’re the one who gets investigated. He can’t get this through his head.”
In fact, as various members of the billionaires’ cabinet tried to calm down the president during their evening phone calls, they were largely egging him on by expressing deep concern about his DOJ and FBI peril. Many of Trump’s wealthy friends saw themselves as having particular DOJ expertise. In their own careers, they had had enough issues with the Justice Department to prompt them to develop DOJ relationships and sources, and now they were always up on DOJ gossip. Flynn was going to throw him in the soup. Manafort was going to roll. And it wasn’t just Russia. It was Atlantic City. And Mar-a-Lago. And Trump SoHo.
Both Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani—each a self-styled expert on the DOJ and the FBI, and ever assuring Trump of their inside sources—encouraged him to take the view that the DOJ was resolved against him; it was all part of a holdover Obama plot.
Even more urgent was Charlie Kushner’s fear, channeled through his son and daughter-in-law, that the Kushner family’s dealings were getting wrapped up in the pursuit of Trump. Leaks in January had put the
kibosh on the Kushners’ deal with the Chinese financial colossus Anbang Insurance Group to refinance the family’s large debt in one of its major real estate holdings, 666 Fifth Avenue. At the end of April, the
New York Times
, supplied with leaks from the DOJ, linked the Kushner business in a front-page article to Beny Steinmetz—an Israeli diamond, mining, and real estate billionaire with Russian ties who was under chronic investigation around the world. (The Kushner position was not helped by the fact that the president had been gleefully telling multiple people that Jared could solve the Middle East problem because the Kushners knew all the best people in Israel.) During the first week of May, the
covered the Kushner family’s supposed efforts to attract Chinese investors with the promise of U.S. visas.
“The kids”—Jared and Ivanka—exhibited an increasingly panicked sense that the FBI and DOJ were moving beyond Russian election interference and into finances. “Ivanka is terrified,” said a satisfied Bannon.
Trump turned to suggesting to his billionaire chorus that he fire FBI director Comey. He had raised this idea many times before, but always, seemingly, at the same time and in the same context that he brought up the possibility of firing everybody.
Should I fire Bannon? Should I fire Reince? Should I fire McMaster? Should I fire Spicer? Should I fire Tillerson?
This ritual was, everyone understood, more a pretext to a discussion of the power he held than it was, strictly, about personnel decisions. Still, in Trump’s poison-the-well fashion, the should-I-fire-so-and-so question, and any consideration of it by any of the billionaires, was translated into agreement, as in:
Carl Icahn thinks I should fire Comey (or Bannon, or Priebus, or McMaster, or Tillerson)
His daughter and son-in-law, their urgency compounded by Charlie Kushner’s concern, encouraged him, arguing that the once possibly charmable Comey was now a dangerous and uncontrollable player whose profit would inevitably be their loss. When Trump got wound up about something, Bannon noted, someone was usually winding him up. The family focus of discussion—insistent, almost frenzied—became wholly about Comey’s ambition. He would rise by damaging them. And the drumbeat grew.
“That son of a bitch is going to try to fire the head of the FBI,” said Ailes.
During the first week of May, the president had a ranting meeting with Sessions and his deputy Rod Rosenstein. It was a humiliating meeting for both men, with Trump insisting they couldn’t control their own people and pushing them to find a reason to fire Comey—in effect, he blamed them for not having come up with that reason months ago. (It was their fault, he implied, that Comey hadn’t been fired right off the bat.)
Also that week, there was a meeting that included the president, Jared and Ivanka, Bannon, Priebus, and White House counsel Don McGahn. It was a closed-door meeting—widely noted because it was unusual for the Oval Office door ever to be closed.
All the Democrats hate Comey
, said the president, expressing his certain and self-justifying view.
All the FBI agents hate him, too—75 percent of them can’t stand him
. (This was a number that Kushner had somehow alighted on, and Trump had taken it up.)
Firing Comey will be a huge fundraising advantage
, declared the president, a man who almost never talked about fundraising.
McGahn tried to explain that in fact Comey himself was not running the Russia investigation, that without Comey the investigation would proceed anyway. McGahn, the lawyer whose job was necessarily to issue cautions, was a frequent target of Trump rages. Typically these would begin as a kind of exaggeration or acting and then devolve into the real thing: uncontrollable, vein-popping, ugly-face, tantrum stuff. It got primal. Now the president’s denunciations focused in a vicious fury on McGahn and his cautions about Comey.
“Comey was a rat,” repeated Trump. There were rats everywhere and you had to get rid of them.
John Dean, John Dean
, he repeated. “Do you know what John Dean did to Nixon?”
Trump, who saw history through personalities—people he might have liked or disliked—was a John Dean freak. He went bananas when a now gray and much aged Dean appeared on talk shows to compare the Trump-Russia investigation to Watergate. That would bring the president to instant attention and launch an inevitable talk-back monologue to the screen about loyalty and what people would do for media attention. It
might also be accompanied by several revisionist theories Trump had about Watergate and how Nixon had been framed. And always there were rats. A rat was someone who would take you down for his own advantage. If you had a rat, you needed to kill it. And there were rats all around.
(Later, it was Bannon who had to take the president aside and tell him that John Dean had been the White House counsel in the Nixon administration, so maybe it would be a good idea to lighten up on McGahn.)
As the meeting went on, Bannon, from the doghouse and now, in their mutual antipathy to Jarvanka, allied with Priebus, seized the opportunity to make an impassioned case opposing any move against Comey—which was also, as much, an effort to make the case against Jared and Ivanka and their allies, “the geniuses.” (“The geniuses” was one of Trump’s terms of derision for anybody who might annoy him or think they were smarter than him, and Bannon now appropriated the term and applied it to Trump’s family.) Offering forceful and dire warnings, Bannon told the president: “This Russian story is a third-tier story, but you fire Comey and it’ll be the biggest story in the world.”
By the time the meeting ended, Bannon and Priebus believed they had prevailed. But that weekend, at Bedminster, the president, again listening to the deep dismay of his daughter and son-in-law, built up another head of steam. With Jared and Ivanka, Stephen Miller was also along for the weekend. The weather was bad and the president missed his golf game, dwelling, with Jared, on his Comey fury. It was Jared, in the version told by those outside the Jarvanka circle, that pushed for action, once more winding up his father-in-law. With the president’s assent, Kushner, in this version, gave Miller notes on why the FBI director should be fired and asked him to draft a letter that could set out the basis for immediate dismissal. Miller—less than a deft drafting hand—recruited Hicks to help, another person without clearly relevant abilities. (Miller would later be admonished by Bannon for letting himself get tied up, and potentially implicated, in the Comey mess.)
The letter, in the panicky draft assembled by Miller and Hicks, either from Kushner’s directions or on instructions directly coming from the president, was an off-the-wall mishmash containing the talking points—Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton investigation; the assertion
(from Kushner) that the FBI itself had turned against Comey; and, the president’s key obsession, the fact that Comey wouldn’t publicly acknowledge that the president wasn’t under investigation—that would form the Trump family’s case for firing Comey. That is, everything but the fact that Comey’s FBI was investigating the president.
The Kushner side, for its part, bitterly fought back against any characterization of Kushner as the prime mover or mastermind, in effect putting the entire Bedminster letter effort—as well as the determination to get rid of Comey—entirely on the president’s head and casting Kushner as passive bystander. (The Kushner side’s position was articulated as follows: “Did he [Kushner] support the decision? Yes. Was he told this was happening? Yes. Did he encourage it? No. Was he fighting for it [Comey’s ouster] for weeks and months? No. Did he fight [the ouster]? No. Did he say it would go badly? No.”)