One of the many telling vignettes in Michael Wolff’s book is the sight of Steve Bannon, then White House chief strategist, pacing the West Wing, openly dispensing odds on Donald Trump’s chances of surviving in office.
Bannon gave Trump a probability of a third that he might limp to the finish line because of Democratic incompetence; a third that he would be pushed from office under the 25th amendment on grounds of mental incapability; and a third that he would be impeached.
That a man who was for many months Trump’s right-hand man would brazenly give out such doom-laden predictions is remarkable enough. But letting the world know of it via Wolff could make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The most explosive aspect of Bannon’s take, revealed by Fire and Fury, is Trump’s handling – or rather mishandling – of the Russia investigation that rages around him. Assuming Wolff’s account to be accurate (and Bannon has said nothing so far to suggest otherwise) the former chief strategist considered Trump entirely out of his depth with regard to special counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry into possible links between Russia and the Trump team.
On a practical level, Trump did not have the “discipline to navigate a tough investigation”, Wolff writes, nor the savvy to bring on powerful lawyers. Most seriously, Trump was, in Bannon’s estimation, unable to grasp “how much Mueller had on him and his family”.
“He doesn’t necessarily see what’s coming,” Bannon is quoted as saying.
We now know from the Guardian’s account of excerpts of the book that Bannon believes the June 2016 meeting between Trump’s son and Russians bearing promises of dirt on Hillary Clinton to have been “treasonous”. We also know that Bannon puts the chances of Donald Jr failing to have informed his father of the encounter at “zero”.
That is not evidence that would satisfy as meticulous a prosecutor as Mueller, but it does shift the frame of the Russia inquiry. Trump may try to belittle Bannon’s involvement with his campaign and subsequent time in the White House, scoffing that he had “little to do with our historic victory”, but few will buy that.
“Bannon was an insider in the campaign at the highest level, and in the White House all the way to last August,” said Richard Painter, chief White House ethics lawyer under George W Bush. “He was talking to the president constantly – I can’t imagine Trump not confiding in him, including over the Russia inquiry.”
That in turn raises the possibility that Bannon might cooperate. Certainly, there is no love lost between him and Trump family members, notably the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.
“Bannon may already be cooperating with Mueller for all we know,” Painter said. “He has no incentive to cover up for Trump, or his family members."
All of which increases the significance of Bannon’s interpretation of the Russia investigation as it reaches possibly critical stages. Where he places his focus is clear from the book: the financial doings of Trump and his immediate family.
When Trump gave an interview to the New York Times last July in which he warned Mueller not to delve into his family’s finances, Bannon’s response was scathing. Wolff writes: “‘Ehhh … ehhh … ehhh!’ screeched Bannon, making the sound of an emergency alarm. ‘Don’t look here! Let’s tell a prosecutor what not to look at!’”
Bannon is specific about what he regards as the most dangerous aspect of the Mueller inquiry: “It goes through Deutsche Bank and all the Kushner shit. The Kushner shit is greasy. They’re going to go right through that.”
Last month it was revealed that federal prosecutors are looking into Kushner’s ties to Deutsche Bank. Those ties include the $285m borrowed from a bank which has been implicated in Russian money-laundering scandals to refinance his holding of part of the old New York Times building in Manhattan. Last July, the Guardian disclosed that Kushner bought the property from a Soviet-born oligarch whose company was named in a high-profile New York money-laundering case.
“Watch Kushner” and “watch Deutsche Bank” seem to be two of the takeaways from this extraordinary chapter in an exceptional presidency.
As was previously known, Trump took control of the statement, insisting the meeting was exclusively about the adoption of Russian children. In fact, the Russian contingent offered incriminating intelligence on Clinton, a crucial detail that was not mentioned but which became quickly public after the email chain involving Don Jr was released.
Wolff gives a more complete rendition, again assuming the accuracy of his account. He writes that the entire White House communications team was relegated to the back of the plane while Trump was up front composing a public statement that could be construed as an attempted cover-up, exposing the president to legal peril.
“It used to hurt my feelings when I saw them running around doing things that were my job,” Sean Spicer, the then White House director of communications, is quoted as saying. “Now I’m glad to be out of the loop.”
The person who remained in the loop was Hope Hicks, currently a successor of Spicer’s as communications chief.
Bannon is said by Wolff to have seen Hicks as “nothing more than a hapless presidential enabler” and flunky for “Jarvanka” – Kushner and his wife, Trump’s daughter Ivanka.
In the fallout from the Trump Tower meeting and false statement, Wolff reports a fight between Bannon and Hicks in the cabinet room. “You don’t know what you are doing,” Bannon is said to have shouted. “You don’t know how much trouble you are in … You are as dumb as a stone!”
The pair, Wolff writes, never spoke to each other again.