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Trump insiders ‘afraid for the country,’ says Michael Wolff

Michael Wolff defended his headline-grabbing new book “Fire and Fury” on Monday, saying he “absolutely” stands by his reporting depicting a chaotic first year inside the Trump White House.

“I spent the better part of seven months in close proximity to everyone in the White House,” Wolff told PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff in an interview Monday. “I had no agenda. I was perfectly willing to write a book in which Donald Trump was the unexpected successful president.”

But Wolff said his White House sources told him they became increasingly alarmed with Trump’s behavior as his first year in office wore on.

Numerous media outlets have reported on a chaotic atmosphere in the White House since Trump took office. But Wolff’s book stands out in part for the on-the-record quotes disparaging Trump or members of his family made by top current and former advisers, like former chief strategist Steve Bannon. Bannon’s comments in the book appeared to cause a rift between him and the White House, which distanced itself from Bannon in recent days.

Wolff also says:

  • Officials close to the president consistently described him as being “like a child,” Wolff said, adding that Trump was someone who “needs immediate and absolute gratification.” Wolff said White House officials described the atmosphere as “becoming more alarming by the day” and that many were “afraid for their own careers and for the country.”
  • Top officials openly questioned Trump’s fitness for office and worried about his unorthodox approach to the presidency. “I think almost anything that he does worries [his children and allies] because it’s always unpredictable, it’s extreme, it’s exceptional and it is outside the bounds of what one has traditionally done as the president of the United States,” Wolff said
  • Why aren’t people resigning from Trump’s White House if they feel this way? “They have suddenly become people with a patriotic duty,” Wolff said.
  • Wolff defended his reporting, after pushback over the weekend about its veracity, but told Woodruff he would not release audio tapes of his interviews. Wolff, a veteran journalist and author, has been accused of inaccurate reporting in the past. “I absolutely stand my ground,” he said.

Watch the full interview in the player above.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Trump White House has been engaged in an all-out battle for the past few days against a new book that paints a devastating portrait of the president.

    Author Michael Wolff spent more than a year with inside access to the Trump campaign and first year in office conducting what he says were more than 200 interviews.

    The president waved, but said nothing, as he left Washington today, that after a weekend full of comment.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I consider it a work of fiction, and I think it's a disgrace.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    On Saturday, at Camp David, Mr. Trump denounced the book "Fire and Fury"- Inside the Trump White House," and pointed to supporters doing the same.

  • President Donald Trump:

    They know the author, and they know he's a fraud.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The author is Michael Wolff. He depicts a White House beset by chaos, staffed by people who question the president's fitness to serve. Economic adviser Gary Cohn is quoted as saying in an e-mail that the president is "an idiot surrounded by clowns," someone who "won't read anything" and "gets up halfway through meetings with world leaders because he is bored."

    Wolff writes that for National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, "He was a dope."

    The book also quotes Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus calling Mr. Trump an idiot. On Saturday, Mr. Trump hit back on Twitter, calling himself a "very stable genius." He followed up at the Camp David news conference.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I had a situation where I was a very excellent student, came out, made billions and billions of dollars, became one of the top businesspeople, went to television, and for 10 years was a tremendous success, as you probably have heard, ran for president one time and won.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    On the Sunday talk shows, several members of the Trump administration also defended the president.

    CIA Director Mike Pompeo rejected Wolff's claims that the president gets bored during intelligence briefings.

  • Mike Pompeo:

    Those statements are just absurd. This president reads material that we provide to him. He listens closely to his daily briefing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Others, inside and outside the administration, have challenged the validity of some of what's in the book. But Wolff says the situation is so alarming that White House aides have even talked about invoking the 25th Amendment to the Constitution.

    In part, it provides for the vice president to take over if he and most Cabinet members deem the president unable to discharge his duties.

  • Michael Wolff:

    The 25th Amendment is a concept that is alive every day in the White House.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    To bolster his case, the author maintains that he had relatively free access to the White House.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I guess sloppy Steve brought him into the White House quite a bit, and it was one of those things. That's why sloppy Steve is now looking for a job.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That's former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who was fired last summer. In the book, Bannon says Donald Trump Jr.'s participation in a 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer was treasonous and unpatriotic.

    Late Sunday, Bannon apologized in a statement, pledging unwavering support. He insisted he had not been talking about Donald Trump Jr., but about Paul Manafort, the one-time Trump campaign chairman. Today, Wolff disputed Bannon's recanting and said there's no question he was talking about the president's son.

    For more on the book and the firestorm it has created, I spoke with Michael Wolff a short time ago, and I asked him how different he found Donald Trump from the man he knew for the past 25 years, before he became president.

  • Michael Wolff:

    In some sense, not different at all.

    I mean, he is the same — I think Steve Bannon calls him a big warm bear — a big warm monkey, actually, is what Steve calls him. He's — you know, he's, in many ways, a man full of flattery, superficial in every respect, a salesman. And he is still that, except that he's the president of the United States.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You have been saying, you have been writing repeatedly that the people around the president now, including his children, are worried about him, in some cases alarmed by him. What are they worried will happen?

  • Michael Wolff:

    I think almost anything that he does worries them, because it is always unpredictable. It is always unpredictable. It's extreme, it's exceptional, and it is outside the bounds of what one has traditionally done as the president of the United States.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, as you know — and we can go through this — the president, everyone around him are pushing back.

    The president is saying this is a book full of lies by an author, he says, totally discredited. The U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, said over the weekend says she sees the president and his staff every week, she never sees anything like this.

    How does that square with what you saw?

  • Michael Wolff:

    It's absolutely untrue.

    I mean, literally, I spent, you know, the better part of seven months in close proximity to everyone in the White House. And, you know, as I have said again and again and again, and I will say once more, I had no agenda. I was perfectly willing to write a book in which Donald Trump was the unexpected successful president.

    I went into this experience just waiting to hear what people would tell me. And what they told me, the people closest to the president, was that things became more alarming by the day, that all of them, in some way or other, were afraid, afraid for their — both for their own careers and for the country.

    They were also — they just didn't know what to do. They didn't know what to expect. They woke up in the morning, and they were in, you know, in something of a cold sweat. Almost all of them — for almost all of them, it was a countdown until when they could leave.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let me continue with some of the pushback.

    You quote the former White House Chief of Staff Katie Walsh as saying, trying to figure out what the president wanted was like trying to figure out what a child wants. She now says she was misquoted. Do you have her on tape? Can you prove that she said it?

  • Michael Wolff:

    You know, I'm not going to produce tapes. I am very comfortable with how I reported what Katie Walsh said.

    And, by the way, I don't say Katie Walsh coming out and, in fact, saying she didn't say this. I think she said, Steve Bannon — she was quoting Steve Bannon or something like that.

    But I will — and I will go further. There is not one person in close proximity to the president in the West Wing who has not used the term that he is like a child. Sometimes, it's an 11-year-old, sometimes a 6-year-old. Sometimes, it's a 2-year-old. Always, he is viewed as a child because he is someone who needs immediate and absolute gratification when, where — and when he wants it, now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You mentioned Steve Bannon, a central figure in the book, somebody you talked to a lot here.

    He did issue a statement over the weekend, pushed back especially — or drew back the comments that you said he made about the president's son, Donald Jr. Why would he do that, if he's somebody you rely on?

  • Michael Wolff:

    Well, I mean, first of all, he didn't.

    He didn't say anything that I quoted as saying him was untrue or even misquoted. What he does try to do, in a very triangulated apology in which he doesn't apologize, is say it wasn't about Don Jr., it was about Paul Manafort.

    Now, there was the quote which he doesn't deny in which I quote him as saying that Don Jr. would be cracked like an egg on national television. Well, he doesn't dispute that. And, in fact, while he certainly included Paul Manafort among this group of hapless people who were — who Steve also thought might be committing treason, it was very much focused on Don Jr.

    He explained that what happened, that whole meeting in Trump Tower, came about because Don Jr. was trying to impress his father, so his father would give him more authority in the campaign. I absolutely stand my ground.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Given what you saw in the White House and what you have reported on, what's your sense of the Mueller investigation? Do you believe that it will produce proof that this president colluded in some way with the Russians?

  • Michael Wolff:

    You know, I have no way of knowing that.

    I can — and I can only report what people in the White House told me. And what people in the White House told me is that, actually, they tend not to give full credence to the idea of collusion, at least a grand strategy of collusion.

    There might be, like Don Jr., some hapless collusion. But they all, again to a man, believe that, if this investigation goes to the president's financial history, then the president is in trouble and his family is in trouble.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The conventional wisdom, Michael Wolff, is that John Kelly, General Kelly, has brought a measure of calm and order to the White House since he arrived in August. Could it be the…

  • Michael Wolff:

    Well, let me just — let me just stop you there and go over the history of the last five days, the common order of the president trying to prior — to restrain — impose a prior restraint on the presentation of a book, the president going out and constantly tweeting about — I mean, attacking an author, attacking his former subordinates, and then coming out and saying that he was, in fact, sane.

    I mean, this is not a White House and not a president that has been restrained and had discipline imposed on him.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And yet you write, you say that the president and General Kelly have contempt for each other?

  • Michael Wolff:

    Yes. And that comes as a surprise?

    Yes, anyway, absolutely.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Move on to the president's daughter Ivanka. Her husband, Jared, he plays a major role in this book. Do you see them still as influential in this White House as they were earlier on?

  • Michael Wolff:

    You know, I think that they are spending a considerable amount of time on their own — on their own legal issues.

    I think General Kelly has taken significant steps to contain their influence. But, yes, they are still the most influential people in the Trump White House.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The 25th Amendment, you have said that this is a subject of conversation in the White House. This has to do with the vice president, the majority of the Cabinet agreeing the vice president should take over, if the president can't discharge his job.

    Do you know that that has been privately discussed by principals in the White House now?

  • Michael Wolff:

    Yes, absolutely.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Who are now — yes.

  • Michael Wolff:

    I mean, let's go.

    And as I have now — as I have outlined, as I have described this before, it is in the matter of people say — because, you know, there's this constant kind of commentary on what Trump has done, how to explain this.

    And so I first started to hear this. They would say, OK, that was weird, maybe not 25th Amendment weird, but weird. And then it would be, OK, we're moving closer to 25th Amendment kind of stuff.

    In other words, it becomes almost a term of art within the White House of how to measure where Trump is at any given moment.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Two other quick things, Michael Wolff.

    If things are as bad as you say, as you write that they are in this administration, why haven't there been resignations on principle from the top levels of this administration?

  • Michael Wolff:

    You know, I mean, I think it's a good question. And, certainly, as an outsider, you would fairly ask that question of everyone.

    The truth is that you find — many of the people find themselves in this situation and it's — and begin to see themselves as the people who can impose some kind of logic and order on this White House, that they almost stand protecting the president, they stand between the American people and the president.

    They are there in some — and I think that this is unexpected for them all, because they're all ambitious people. They have suddenly become people with a patriotic duty.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, have you heard from people in the White House, in the administration since the book came out? What are they saying to you privately?

  • Michael Wolff:

    They are saying — the context that I continue to have — and a great many of the people who I spoken to this book are no longer with the administration, of course.

    But what I do hear, quite specifically, is the president is bouncing off the walls because of this book. He really takes it as a mortal threat.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Michael Wolff, the book is "Fire and Fury"- Inside the Trump White House."

    Quite a book.

    Thank you very much.

  • Michael Wolff:

    Thank you.

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