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Michael Wolff's journey from local media scourge to national newsmaker

Now, the Wolff formula has been applied to a far bigger canvas: presidential politics

Michael M Grynbaum | NYT 

Wolff's publisher is apparently undaunted by the president's threats
Wolff’s publisher is apparently undaunted by the president’s threats

has, for years, been a prime piranha in the Manhattan media pond, using his caustic columns to tear into his lunchmates at Michael’s, the Midtown mogul canteen, and cutting a memorable figure at star-speckled dinner parties, clad in Charvet ties and shirts by the London haberdashery Browns. His arsenic-laced prose was well known among powerful figures like Rupert Murdoch, whose life Wolff chronicled in a 2008 biography that left its subject displeased. But his nose for first-class gossip kept the machers circling. Now, the Wolff formula has been applied to a far bigger canvas: It is proving to be his most successful provocation to date. Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, his insider account of the year he spent reporting from the West Wing, has drawn denunciations from the White House lectern, threatened the career of the Breitbart News leader Stephen K Bannon and turned Wolff, an overnight sensation at age 64, into one of the world’s most famous journalists. On Thursday, Trump’s lawyers threatened to sue Wolff’s publisher, Henry Holt, if it did not halt the book’s release and apologise for its contents — an extraordinary attempt by a sitting president to stifle critical coverage. Henry Holt responded by moving up the book’s release by four days. Wolff may be looking at his first No. 1 best seller. Even for the brazenly confident Wolff, a status-mad needler with a habit of being ejected from expensive restaurants, this is a new level of notoriety. He is accustomed to angering the Manhattan power elite, not the leader of the free world. “It’s almost a natural evolution of Michael Wolff, that one day the president would be talking about him from the White House,” said Janice Min, the former editor of The Hollywood Reporter, where Wolff is a columnist. His acidic portrayal of Trump as a president in over his head, disdained by aides who are astounded by his lack of fitness for the job, has dominated headlines and social media for days, along with his purportedly verbatim quotes from figures like Bannon and Murdoch dismissing Trump as a fool. But Wolff has picked up as many foes as fans during his years as a slashing columnist — perhaps more, even — and critics have raised questions about the veracity of his reporting, saying that he has a history of being casual with his facts. The excerpts from Fire and Fury that appeared this week have been raked over for mistakes.

Wolff writes that CNN reported on Trump being accused of an exotic sexual practice with prostitutes in an intelligence dossier; in fact, BuzzFeed News reported those details. He also describes Trump as being unaware of the identity of John Boehner, the former Republican House Speaker; in fact, the pair had golfed together long before Wolff began visiting the White House. Other details have been disputed. Thomas Barrack Jr, a close Trump friend, denied that he said the president was “not only crazy, he’s stupid,” as Wolff reports. On Thursday, the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said the book contained “mistake, after mistake, after mistake.” Wolff, who declined to be interviewed for this article, stands by his reporting. And his publisher is apparently undaunted by the president’s threats. “We see ‘Fire and Fury’ as an extraordinary contribution to our national discourse, and are proceeding with the publication of the book,” Henry Holt said in a statement on Thursday. Bannon has not disputed his quotes in the book, even as the material has damaged him politically and perhaps professionally: several Min wrote on Twitter that she attended a dinner party that Wolff describes in detail, including a verbatim conversation between Bannon and Roger Ailes, the now-deceased former chairman of Fox News. “Every word I’ve seen from the book about it is absolutely accurate,” Min wrote. Raised in the New Jersey suburbs, the son of an advertising executive (his father) and a newspaper reporter (his mother), Wolff entered journalism early, as a copy boy for The New York Times. (He would later skewer The Times, along with other mainstream news organisations, as stolid and biased.) He has been a columnist and a media executive, writing a memoir about his time running a failed internet start-up, and once trying to purchase New York magazine with partners including Harvey Weinstein. Wolff also became friendly with Trump, making a cameo in a pilot that never aired for a Trump-branded reality-TV project, “Trump Town Girls,” which involved beauty contestants selling real estate. After the election, he secured Trump’s trust, in part, by relentlessly criticising other reporters’ coverage of the president-elect.

© 2018 The New York Times

First Published: Fri, January 05 2018. 23:30 IST