The Political Implications Of 'Fire And Fury'
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to start the program today talking about the big political story of the day. A new book called "Fire And Fury: Inside The Trump White House" has set off a volley of accusations between President Trump and the author of the book, Michael Wolff.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I consider it a work of fiction. And I think it's a disgrace that somebody is able to have something, do something like that. I did a quick interview with him, a long time ago, having to do with an article. But I don't know this man. 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.
MARTIN: That was President Trump speaking at Camp David today where he's meeting with Republican leaders. Sloppy Steve being a reference to former Trump chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who's described in the book as questioning Trump's capacity to handle the job. Notably, Steve Bannon has not, to this point, disputed the tone or accuracy of the quotes attributed to him.
Now, we're not in a position to verify the claims made in the book. But because of Bannon's critical role in the Trump campaign and because the president and his allies have spoken so forcefully about it, we're going to focus on the political implications of this. And for this, we called Robert Costa. He's a national political reporter for The Washington Post, moderator of PBS' Washington Week. And he was nice enough to stop by our studios in Washington, D.C. Robert, thanks so much for joining us once again.
ROBERT COSTA: Great to be with you.
MARTIN: So first, the book just came out yesterday. In fact, the publisher accelerated the timing of the distribution of the book in response to the fact that the White House was so unhappy about it. But for those who haven't read it, can you just give us some of the highlights that have gotten such a reaction out of the White House?
COSTA: The biggest reaction has been over Bannon's comments about Donald Trump's family and, specifically, about a meeting Donald Trump Jr. had last year with a Russian lawyer. Bannon, in the book, is published as saying that was treasonous, and it was unpatriotic to have that sort of meeting.
But the bigger picture of this book was not really about Bannon. It's about President Trump, and it's about the way his own advisers and confidants see him through the lens of these conversations with Michael Wolff. And there's a portrait that's painted that the president is somewhat incompetent. That's the view of the advisers in this book.
MARTIN: Now, the president is known to react strongly to slights, large and small, but I'm interested in how you interpret his reaction to this so far.
COSTA: You always have to be careful with President Trump to not read too much into these kind of episodes because advisers in his orbit - they come and go. Maybe the relationship with Bannon has fully unraveled. But there have been so many ups and downs in the Bannon-Trump relationship over the past two years. And Bannon was just talking to the president just weeks ago.
MARTIN: He was just talking to the president weeks ago.
COSTA: He was. He was actually talking to the president about that Alabama Senate race where both Bannon and the president backed Roy Moore, who was credibly accused of molesting teenage girls decades ago. And they were talking through the whole midterm map for next year. And that's the political question.
Now as the president has to make choices about races this year - for Senate, for House, for governor - and where he lands and who he supports, Bannon is not going to be that big of a force. That's why you saw the biggest smile in Washington about this book was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell because he knows the president now seems to be moving more toward the mainstream of the Republican Party, at least in his alliances politically, than with Bannon.
MARTIN: In fact, the president talked about this earlier at Camp David. He was asked whether he'd be supporting any Republican Senate candidates taking on incumbents, and this is what he said.
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TRUMP: I don't see that happening at this moment. No. I think they've sort of scattered. We had somebody that lost us the state of Alabama. And I think, as far as I'm concerned, that was a shame that that was lost. It should never have been lost.
MARTIN: And who's he talking about there?
COSTA: He's referencing Bannon. Of course, the president did support Roy Moore as well. But you see the president fed up with Bannon, his longtime strategist. And now he's standing there at Camp David this weekend with Mitch McConnell with other leaders from the House. And it's a projection that the president and this White House, after passing a major tax bill, they, for the moment, are moving more toward the GOP, not that hard-charging Bannon style that defined them in 2017.
MARTIN: I do feel, though, I have to ask you about the aspect of the book that has gotten a lot of attention. And as I said earlier, we are not in a position to verify the truth or falsity of the statements that were made in this book about President Trump's abilities. But he addressed them. This morning he tweeted that he is, quote, "not smart but genius and a very stable genius at that," at which point, we cannot ignore the fact that particular concern has reached him. So the question then becomes, how does the political leadership of the country react to this?
COSTA: There have been long-simmering questions in Washington among members of both parties, but in particular Republicans, about the president's conduct - his behavior, his fitness for office. And the president had to address those simmering questions head on at Camp David because it's now not a simmer; it's a boil. But the thing that stands out in my reporting is this - so many people around the president still stay in the administration. Sometimes they grouse privately. They don't like the way he acts, but they stay there.
MARTIN: If I could just sort of clarify that. So you've covered the president for a long time. You've covered the campaign. Your reporting indicates that there is a concern about his behavior.
COSTA: There are many concerns throughout the administration. They ripple through every day whenever he turns on Twitter. It veers from thinking the president's unpresidential at times to not being fit for office. What's so important to pay attention to is what do people say publicly because so often - in this Michael Wolff book, in my report, in the reporting of others - people grouse privately. And until that really gets public, it's hard to pinpoint and say there's a real upheaval about that issue.
MARTIN: That's Robert Costa. He's national political reporter for The Washington Post, moderator of PBS' Washington Week. And he was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Robert Costa, thanks so much for joining us once again.
COSTA: Thank you.
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