TIME spoke to author Michael Wolff about his new book Fire and Fury on Jan. 8 in New York City. Here is a transcript of that conversation, lightly edited for clarity.
I want to jump off with some of the more recent developments around Fire and Fury, including Steve Bannon’s apology for statements that he was quoted as making in the book. What did you make of the apology — did it surprise you?
Yeah, it did surprise me. It’s not so much surprising as trying to figure out what Steve’s next move is. I like Steve. I probably don’t agree with much of what he would like to happen in this country, but I do like him. He was very helpful for this project, and much more to the point, he was incredibly insightful.
And chief strategist was a very good title for Steve because Steve is always strategizing. So, I assume that’s what he’s doing now.
Some tend to think that to Steve Bannon, it’s all a big game, and eventually he will find his way back into President Trump’s good graces. Eventually there’ll be a made-for-reality TV reunion of sorts between the two.
Donald Trump doesn’t necessarily stay mad for very long. He’s a transactional guy. If you can offer him something, he will take it. Or from a salesman’s point of view, if he’s not making the sale, you’re of no use to him. But if you suddenly come back into the showroom and are willing to buy, he’s willing to sell.
Have you been in touch with Steve Bannon since the book’s launch?
Let me not go there.
People in this book, with perhaps one big exception, seem as though they ought to know better in terms of speaking to a roving reporter who’d been granted access. What accounts for the degree of trust you’ve enjoyed in breaking such kind of explosive news?
You know, I’m not sure I would call it “trust.” This is a White House where everybody is speaking constantly to reporters — to anybody who will listen. They have a need to talk. They have a need to understand, I think, what they themselves are doing, what are they doing there.
The curious thing about my book is that I don’t think that I am the only one who knows this. Quite the opposite. Anybody who’s spending time around the White House knows a lot of what I know. Or most of what I know. They just aren’t writing it. And they aren’t writing it because there’s a difference between being a daily reporter and being a book writer. I had two luxuries. The first luxury is I don’t have to go back again. All of these other reporters have to go back again. The other luxury is I get to sit back and watch and absorb and produce a story. Not just a news break, but sort of the full monty of Trumpland.
That raises the question — and it’s something I’ve been wondering about since I first read the New York magazine excerpt — of how you do this again? Not necessarily with Trump, but who would you be able to convince to allow you access, now that we know that you’re capable of producing this?
Well, you know, I’ve had this question asked of me before because I wrote Rupert Murdoch’s biography, a book that he deeply detested. And everybody said, A) why did he possibly let you in? And B) who will ever let you in again?
There’s always someone. I want to get back to what you were talking about, key differences between daily reporting and book reporting. And look back to about a year ago, maybe 11 months ago, and at the time, you spoke out and were critical of reporters on the White House beat who were producing daily content.
I wonder, in retrospect, was part of that about a strategy to gain access to the Trump White House? Was it a reflection of your feelings? Was it competition on the beat? What was the motivation there?
Yes, I wish I were so strategic. I am not. I felt genuinely at the start of this administration that the press had made up its mind.
And I had not, actually. So I literally went into this project — I had no idea what I would find. Literally no idea. And I could have written an exact opposite book. I got a free hall pass there because I’m open. I’m just looking and listening.
Part of what accounts for the Trump phenomenon, though, is that he is a uniquely polarizing figure. And you’ve said before that you went in with a fairly open mind and didn’t have really a political take. I found that surprising, to be honest, that you didn’t have a political opinion about Trump.
Well, I think that that’s what I found: I took exception to lots of the media coverage. That media people, and people in our community, people such as yourself, can’t see their way through to an — what’s the word? — unbiased… I mean, Trump could have been anything. It’s not implausible that Donald Trump could have been a successful President.
I want to get specific, or as specific as you’re willing to get, about access to Trump qua Trump, the man himself. How many times —
I’ve said — you know, this is part of the Trump thing. So the White House is putting this out. So you’re now asking the—
I’m not doing it under any word from the White House.
Well, but you are, because this seeps out everywhere. I have said from the beginning, I’ve spent approximately three hours with Trump since the campaign, since June 2016 through till now. I’m completely comfortable with my familiarity with Donald Trump. But, more to the point, this is not about my opinion of Donald Trump. This is about the opinion of the people around him, the people around him, the people closest to him, the people who have to work for him, the people who have to run the country’s business.
Do you believe that the administration has the capability to disseminate a message like that to the media? In your book, it seems like they are the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.
I think that there are both issues. There is a White House operation and it does what White House operations do, more or less successfully.
And then there is Trump who subverts, frustrates, sometimes perhaps helps. But he’s the loose cannon. So the fact that the president would demand that I be sued and that the publisher be sued, nobody around him thought that was a good idea. That’s a wackadoo idea, but yet it happened.
People like [New York Times reporter] Maggie Haberman have kind of bristled at the way that you described their reporting. And she plays into the book—you talked about her coverage. And then ultimately have kind of indicated that she feels that the book mirrors, or takes a very similar tone to, what she was doing all along. Do you have anything you would want to say to her?
No, I completely agree with her. I mean the only difference there is I took note of the fact that this was the New York Times. The New York Times had created a kind of, sometimes it felt like “how weird is Donald Trump” beat. And I found that un-Times-like, I suppose.
In terms of our conclusions, we might — I mean, I don’t know what Maggie Haberman’s conclusions are, and that’s the interesting thing. I know that she reports this on a daily basis. Does she believe that the President is not capable of performing his job? I don’t know if she believes that. Does she believe that the President may have, as Steve Bannon put it, “lost it”? I don’t know if she believes that.
Part of what I’ve done, however, and I think what prompted those questions, prompted people to have to come up with an answer to those questions — Beyond the daily reporting, I’m the person who kind of has pulled back and said, “No clothes here.”
Which is the luxury, as you say, of being a book writer. I wonder going forward what you think the remedy is for a newspaper that’s obliged to put out a daily report, or a magazine that comes out every week?
I think everybody’s doing their job here. I mean the daily reporting has gotten to be quite good. Sometimes very good. Sometimes extraordinary. It is still daily reporting, and one of the effects, if you want to talk about this on a meta-level, is that the nature of Donald Trump, always, and what he does, obscures what he did the day before.
So, we feel on a day-by-day basis, it’s kind of explosion, explosion, explosion. And we can’t sort of see the whole battle or the whole war. And that was what I was trying to do.
Who do you see in your mind, if there is such a person, as the target audience for Fire and Fury?
I don’t see it. I mean, that’s what’s interesting about this moment in time, since Donald Trump is the main character in all of our lives. It turns out that most everyone is interested in this story. They may actually not be interested in any other stories. This is it. This takes all of the air out of the room, and everybody wants to go further, to understand this more. You know, you get a daily diet of this every day and yet this book comes along, and again, it’s suddenly… It’s as though every day is up close. This book lets you pull back.
The reason I specifically asked that, too, is that I’m thinking about people who are kind of core supporters of Donald Trump. We both know that there’s that 35 percent that kind of won’t go anywhere, but you think that they are inclined to potentially just dismiss this book as another piece of “fake news”?
I think on the spectrum here, there’s a lot of people who, in that famous Trumpism about being able to shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and they would still vote for him, I think that that’s true. There are those people. Although Steve Bannon speaks in the book about sort of breaking this spell.
And I think it will break at some point. Will this book help that? It might. And then I think that there’s that [base], it actually probably isn’t 35 percent. It’s probably less than that. And there is a great middle ground. The middle ground is always the forgotten ground. And that’s where I think people are willing to have their opinion changed.
I do feel as though for liberal readers, it kind of confirmed every supposition. Trump is a character who, in a way, is always true to type. There is something so consistent about the way he behaves, isn’t there?
Turns out. I mean, he is Donald Trump. And that’s sort of within that circle, within his circle in the White House, the people closest to him, that would be the thing. When they couldn’t express anything — and, I mean, they couldn’t, it was inexplicable what was going on — that’s what they would fall back to “He’s Donald Trump.”
Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, “Jarvanka” as Bannon calls them in the book, they seem like such vexed characters. What do you think their role is going forward at the White House?
I don’t know. I mean they are largely preoccupied at this point with their own legal difficulties. Do they recover from that? And then what? I don’t know. I’m not sure that they can recover from that. And I’m not sure that it was ever clear exactly what their role was. I think John Kelly has tried to clamp that down. Has tried to contain them. On the other hand, they have the most direct line to Donald Trump.
Donald Trump who, over the weekend, refuted your book and called himself a “very stable genius.” As someone who is trying to get your book read, is that ultimately a quote worthy of being blurbed on the back cover? How do you feel about the President’s response?
You know, I have deeply mixed feelings about the President’s response. On the one hand, yes, it’s probably good — undeniably good for this book. On the other hand, it’s all ludicrous.
On the other hand, it’s also a little scary. I mean, getting a letter from the President’s lawyer, I mean essentially trying to restrain the publication of this book is, again, ludicrous and scary.
Do you fear professional, personal, legal reprisal?
No. A President of the United States cannot restrain anything from publication. So, I don’t have any fear of this, certainly, nor did my publisher who rushed into the breach and instead of publishing this week, published last week.
At the same time, this is the President of the United States. There is some reality there. The most powerful person in the country has focused on me, in this case. And you think, okay, this is kind of preposterous. But is it?
Factual accuracy has come up as a topic of conversation, which is a powerful weapon for those who want to criticize your book. I want you to be able to respond to those who say there are errors in the book.
You know, first thing, the book is methodically researched, methodically sourced. Are there going to be errors? Apparently I mixed up Mark Berman and a Mike Berman. The truth is that this is that the White House is going to do anything to try to discredit this book. It would certainly appear that the President seems to feel this is a mortal threat.
And yes, he’s going to do anything, and he’s going to try in every possible way to come after this book and to attack this book. That is the Trump way. Will that have an effect? I mean, the President has been extremely successful. He is the President. He somehow got to be the President. On the other hand, I have absolute confidence in this book.
You have absolute confidence in both the facts and not blowing off-the-record conversations?
Absolute. This is down the line.
I wonder why it was you as a reporter who seems to have cracked the nut of covering this presidency. You and President Trump are both kind of figures who are talked about and speculated about in the Manhattan media swirl for a long time. Do you feel as though there’s a biographical or temperamental similarity that helped you get the story?
I do not.
There are characters in your book who seem to be kind of trying to do their best to get what they think is right done, and get as many of their own policy goals out of this crazy and tumultuous situation.
Yes, in a way, I came to admire the people in the White House, and that’s a funny kind of thing because on the one hand, I might also think they shouldn’t be there. They should look at this and then they should say, “This is bad, I’m not going to support this, and I’m going to get out of there.”
But on the other hand, I saw a lot of these people come to the conclusion they are important now. They are the bulwark between this guy who they think can’t do this job, and getting the job done. Or at least, dare I say, protecting the country from the man they work for.
And so as they peel away—
—Yes, I think it becomes even more dangerous. I mean, essentially, the President’s two senior advisors right now, really, I think in a way the senior-most advisors beyond General Kelly are Stephen Miller, who I think everybody saw have a meltdown on Jake Tapper’s show yesterday, and Hope Hicks, a perfectly nice 28-year-old young woman who, as it happens, knows nothing about anything.
This man is, barring fairly unprecedented circumstances, going to be the President for three more years. I’m not asking you to advocate a policy position, but how do you think a concerned reader should react?
I don’t know. I mean that’s not my job. I’m not an advocate. I truly have no position. I’m just a guy there who goes in and is looking and listening and trying to write this down, and trying to do it in such a way that I’m sitting on this couch in the West Wing, and I want readers to feel that they are sitting there, too.
Correction appended: The original version of this article misspelled Stephen Miller’s first name.
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