Michael Wolff’s book is littered with errors. He has a track record that suggests that embellishment is par for the course for him. He misrepresented his way into the White House. How much of his Donald Trump tell-all is embellished or misrepresented is unclear and may never be known.
All of which makes a new book about the early days of the Trump administration potentially even more damning than Wolff’s.
The author of this one is Fox News Channel media critic Howard Kurtz, a former longtime reporter at The Washington Post. And as The Post’s Ashley Parker writes, his book - “Media Madness: Donald Trump, the Press, and the War Over the Truth” - confirms and expands upon media accounts of the chaos happening behind the scenes at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Among the juiciest anecdotes:
—Trump has a tendency to do whatever his advisers most strongly advise him against, and they even have a term for such behavior: his “defiance disorder.”
—He, out of nowhere, tweeted his decision to ban transgender people from the military before a scheduled meeting with then-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus to discuss his options on the matter. “Oh my God, he just tweeted this,” Priebus reportedly said.
—His aides were similarly blindsided by his accusation, also via Twitter, that President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump during the presidential campaign.
—Trump was strongly advised not to dispatch then-press secretary Sean Spicer to dispute stories about Trump’s inaugural crowd size and later admitted, “I shouldn’t have done that.”
We don’t know what the overall tone of the book is and how many more such anecdotes it contains; Parker obtained excerpts of the book, which is due out Jan. 29. And she notes that those excerpts sometimes contain a more flattering portrayal of Trump than we see in Wolff’s book and elsewhere in the media.
But that’s also kind of the point. Kurtz is a Fox News host who has regularly offered a skeptical take on the media’s treatment of Trump. No, he’s not Sean Hannity, but he has shown a willingness to question the overarching narrative that Wolff’s book sold - and which Kurtz’s book now seems to confirm, at least to some degree.
A sampling: Kurtz has said that the media are too negative toward Trump and that reporters are too snarky on Twitter. He compared what he considered a quick avalanche of negative Trump coverage during the campaign to a “mob hit.” He wrote a column last month arguing that journalistic mistakes had allowed Trump to “shred the media’s credibility.” He has defended Trump’s Twitter attacks - even ones viewed as being sexist or advocating violence - as responses to the “battering” the president has taken. He has questioned why the media decided to resurface sexual harassment allegations against Trump after the #MeToo movement began.
And he has even argued that the media use too many anonymous sources when detailing what happens behind the scenes at the White House:
“Unnamed sources are way overused, especially by major news outlets. People are allowed to take cheap shots without their names attached. They are empowered to engage in political sniping from behind a curtain of anonymity. And top news executives know this.”
The fact that the guy who made this argument early in Trump’s presidency is now relaying anecdotes - apparently via anonymous sources - about chaos behind the scenes in the White House should not be lost on anyone.
Kurtz’s media criticisms are necessarily cherry-picked and incomplete, and he has at times sided against the things Trump has done in prosecuting his case against the media. But he also has been skeptical of the media’s treatment of Trump and some of the narratives that have gone along with that.
It also remains to be seen just how many anecdotes like the ones above are in the book. I am somewhat skeptical that the full product will be anything amounting to a screed against the Trump White House; it seems more likely to dwell on his relationship with the media.
But what is described above is a president who is acting haphazardly and without the guidance of his aides, making major allegations and policy decisions on whims and - in the case of the inaugural crowd episode - deliberately pushing false narratives despite apparently knowing better. The juiciest bit so far appears to be “defiance disorder, “a term that could only arise out of repeated instances of Trump being perceived as acting not in the interest of the country but in the interest of defying those around him and trying to prove that he’s smarter - or that he can get away with things they say he can’t.
The fact that it’s how Trump is described by an oft-sympathetic Fox News host makes it ring even truer.
A Suffolk University poll last month showed Fox News viewers have an unfavorable view of the media by a margin off 64-24. Another survey showed 76 percent of Republicans think the media makes up stories about Trump. And a Quinnipiac poll in November showed 91 percent of Republicans disapproved of how the media covered Trump and just 10 percent trusted the media more than Trump.
To the extent that this book paints a picture of which Fox News hosts and viewers have been skeptical, that’s what could be really significant.
Aaron Blake is a Washington Post columnist.