This week, the Trump administration responded to revelations in Michael Wolff’s new book, Fire and Fury, in two ways. One of those ways was fully merited and praiseworthy; the other was counterproductive and dunderheaded. The first response came in the form of President Trump publicly disemboweling the leading leaker against Trump, former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. Bannon had glorified himself over Trump, attempted to pose as the head of a Trumpist “nationalist populist” movement, and suggested that actual criminal — and therefore impeachable — activity took place in Trumpworld. Trump rightly smacked Bannon with a rhetorical brick.
That made a good deal of sense: Bannon has been a net negative for the president since the election. Bannon was responsible for the utter botchery of the first travel ban rollout; he was responsible, reportedly, for Trump’s disastrous handling of the Charlottesville white supremacist rallies and murder; he spent his days on the phone with various media outlets undercutting his boss and glorifying himself.
Then there was the second response.
The Trump administration decided to go to all-out war with Wolff, thereby elevating his book dramatically in the public mind. Trump’s lawyers sent a wildly ill-advised cease-and-desist letter to Wolff’s publisher, which only served to make it seem like Trump wanted to silence the book from the White House. If Obama had tried to do the same with an Edward Klein book, the Right would have lost its mind. This isn’t activity in which the White House should be participating.
What’s more, the White House could have easily shifted the burden of proof onto Wolff, given that the book seems filled with anecdotal second-hand nonsense (Trump didn’t know who John Boehner was, Stephen Miller is a policy illiterate), apparently drawn directly from the brain of Steve Bannon. The White House should have said that Bannon talked smack about the White House, that most of that smack was false, and that Sloppy Steve’s disingenuous musings undermined the credibility of the book itself.
Instead, they fell directly into the Streisand Effect, drawing attention to the book and making it seem that Wolff was telling forbidden truths rather than half-baked stories largely confirming general public perception about dysfunction and chaos in the West Wing.
So, where should the White House go from here? They should go back to the strategy of ignoring the book, and disparaging its chief source. That, after all, is more reflective of the truth than any attempt to shut down its distribution.