The author, Michael Wolff, used an interesting tactic to gain access to the Trump White House:
He allowed his subjects, the president included, to believe that he was going to write a positive account of the Trump administration, and then used that access to produce an account of an administration in constant chaos, and a president who was understood by everyone around him to be unfit for the job.
One way to approach special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, if your sense of civic duty requires you to approach it, is to see it as a more rigorous, capacious version of “Fire and Fury.” Mueller's exposé was backed by subpoena power rather than just sweet talk, but ultimately it delivers the same general portrait: President Donald Trump as an amoral incompetent surrounded by grifters, misfits and his own overpromoted children, who is saved from self-destruction by advisers who sometimes decline to follow orders, and saved from high crimes in part by incompetence and weakness.
Steve Bannon, Wolff’s most voluble source, came across as the smartest character in “Fire and Fury.” In the Mueller report a similar role is played by former White House counsel Don McGahn, who spoke at great length with investigators and ended up portrayed as the most effective of those save-him-from-himself advisers, using masterful inaction to frustrate Trump’s desire to sack the special counsel. And just as Trump railed against Bannon after Wolff’s book came out, he is now railing against McGahn, though in both cases it was his own decision (to allow Wolff White House access, to waive executive privilege and to allow aides to cooperate with Mueller) that made the revelations possible.
More broadly, just as Wolff’s unusual access ultimately produced a more dramatic version of a story that had already been told in piecemeal (and perhaps less fancifully) by White House reporters at the major newspapers, in the Mueller report we get a lot of confirmation of stories about White House dysfunction and dangerous presidential impulses that were published in, for instance, The New York Times.
But at the same time, the Mueller report also reaches roughly the same conclusion about the Russia-collusion story that “Fire and Fury” offered. Wolff wrote that while there might have been “side deals and freelance operations” by campaign hangers-on, “the idea of formal collusion and artful conspiracy ... seemed unlikely to everybody in the White House ... Bannon’s comment that the Trump campaign was not organized enough to collude with its own state organizations became everybody’s favorite talking point — not least because it was true.”
The disorganization point is key, because it is clear enough from events like the Trump Tower meeting that people around Trump were, shall we say, unencumbered by qualms about collusion. But the report makes the idea of an active, directed conspiracy — of the sort popularized by the Steele dossier, various faulty news reports and deep-state “experts,” and the Resistance industry — seem as implausible as Wolff’s White House sources insisted.
Just to read the Mueller report’s paragraphs on the change to the GOP convention platform on Ukraine, long a minor locus of quid pro quo conspiracy theorizing between Trump and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, is sufficient to recognize how much freelancing and chaos dominated the Trump campaign, and how little direction was offered from above. Meanwhile, many of the larger loci of conspiracy — the alleged Michael Cohen Prague trip, the alleged Paul Manafort visit to Julian Assange, the bank server supposedly communicating between Trump Tower and Moscow — simply evanesce under the report’s scrutiny.
What remains offers useful detail about the Trump administration in the same way that “Fire and Fury” offered useful detail: It tells us more about what we already knew to be the case. The Mueller report is further proof that Trump has been as dishonest and ridiculous in the White House as he was on the campaign trail; further proof that his administration is filled with leakers, liars and people trying to protect their country from their boss and their boss from himself; further proof that our president postures as a strongman, yet is unable to master his own White House; further proof that left to his own devices, Trump would constantly blunder into impeachable offenses.
But because it adds to a well-understood reality, the report will probably have the same modest political impact, the same limited media half-life as prior, less-extensive exposés, and we will be back to talking about whether former Vice President Joe Biden can beat Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and whether Sanders can beat Trump.
And that shift will be sensible. Thanks to Mueller, we know that Trump is about as bad as he appeared to be while running for the presidency — but not secretly omnicompetent, not secretly treasonous. He won in 2016 despite the manifold vices chronicled by Mueller’s team. The challenge for his opposition is to make him lose in 2020 because of them.