- The publication of a new book has caused a massive public rift between President Donald Trump and his former adviser Steve Bannon.
- It has gotten ugly. New York City-tabloid ugly.
- As a New Yorker, sorry. Also: It could get worse.
New York City owes the rest of the country an apology.
The national political discourse has mutated into something that belongs in one of our petty gossip rags, and it’s the fault of a bunch of New Yorkers.
This weekend the hot Manhattan mess festered like the city’s summer garbage awaiting pickup on the footpath. President Donald Trump, in a stunning bit of political choreography, held a press briefing excommunicating his former adviser Steve Bannon.
Or, as the president deemed him on Twitter, “Sloppy Steve.”
Bannon – seemingly about as cowed as he is capable of being – then wrote a lengthy kind-of apology for the explosive comments he had made about Donald Trump Jr., the Russia investigation, and more, as quoted in Michael Wolff’s new book on the White House, “Fire and Fury.”
Of course, the tension between Bannon and Trump had been building long before the first excerpt of that book appeared, leading to Bannon’s departure from the White House in August – a departure the president now characterises as a firing during which Bannon “cried” for his job.
Weeks ago at Mar-a-Lago, Don Jr. asked a Bannon associate to tell him to squash his leak-driven feud with Ivanka Trump and her husband, the presidential son-in-law and real-estate scion, Jared Kushner. Or Javanka, as team Bannon likes to call them.
Based on the president’s reaction since the book came out, it doesn’t seem as if Bannon listened. Or at least it seems he had the misfortune to see insults he’d said to Wolff over the previous months – Ivanka is “dumb as a brick”; a criminal investigation into Jared’s “greasy” dealings will be the president’s downfall – published in a best-selling book.
Maybe the president also noticed Bannon only sort of apologised for what he’d said about Don Jr. and not about Ivanka or Jared.
A New York real-estate brawl
For New Yorkers, this should all be depressingly familiar: the name-calling; the chest-beating; using friends to send warnings in a game of telephone; using the media to accuse your enemies of being obsessed with the media; leaking; huffing on and off of private jets; public denunciations.
This is a New York real-estate brawl. It doesn’t belong in the White House. It belongs on Page Six, next to Gambino crime family arrests and the scoop on whatever Lindsay Lohan did in the Maldives.
This isn’t to say that no one in America asked for this kind of entertainment; they knew whom they voted for.
But it’s unclear whether they realised exactly what kind of baggage someone like Trump brings with him. Not just in the people he keeps around him but in the way he learned to deal with problems.
Trump, a product of his environment, fights like a gaudy, shameless, fame-hungry New York real-estate guy. And now that’s everyone’s public shame.
Oh look – a tweet!
A city of frenemies
There is probably no better symbol of the New York tabloid nature of this White House than the fact that someone let Wolff in to write this book. He’s infamous in this city’s navel-gazing media circle for stirring the pot and having approximately the same attachment to facts that the president has.
No sane White House would want him inside working on a book.
But, apparently, Bannon did want him around this White House. He was impressed with Wolff’s relationship with Roger Ailes, another New York creature.
Plus, Wolff knew exactly how to flatter Bannon.
It’s a fairly easy calculation with a man like Bannon, who presumes himself a living martyr for his lofty ideals – a brilliant, inscrutable being, just trying to make contact. A man who also surely considers himself a very stable genius, even though he hasn’t said so on Twitter.
What Wolff had to do to win over Bannon was give him space to talk in a column in The Hollywood Reporter in November 2016 – and to publicly defend the administration against “media bias,” much to the frustration of other journalists.
Trump has now accused Bannon of courting the very media he claims to be at war with – a rich criticism coming from Trump, but no less true.
Once Wolff was in, he leveraged the utter confusion and incompetence in the White House to tell everyone to talk to him because everyone else was doing it. Trump didn’t mind. Wolff simply said he might be writing a book. And then he stirred the pot.
It takes a village to build a city
Bannon can’t be totally blamed for turning this White House into a New York Daily News cover in motion. The Trumps have brought in plenty of Gotham characters who almost merited a New York apology.
The first was the lawyer Marc Kasowitz, brought in as Trump’s personal lawyer on the Russia case. He’s an old Trump confidant – a New York guy with a reputation for aggression and a firm that one former employee described as having a “macho, scotch-drinking, fist-fighting” ethos.”
Kasowitz lasted only until July. He was ousted after he responded intemperately to a critical email from an American citizen, as quoted by ProPublica: “‘I’m on you now. You are f—ing with me now. Let’s see who you are. Watch your back, b—-.”
In another email, Kasowitz wrote: “Call me. Don’t be afraid, you piece of s—. Stand up. If you don’t call, you’re just afraid.”
And later: “I already know where you live, I’m on you. You might as well call me. You will see me. I promise. Bro.'”
Charming and professional. Like a man screaming his way into a fistfight outside an Islanders game.
Skyscrapers and riches, pigeons and rats
Then, of course, there was the 11-day White House communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, a fading demi-star in the Trump sky.
He’s a former Goldman guy lovingly known as “The Mooch” on Wall Street – a man more known for his Rolodex than for running money.
He’s a man who once sat down for a documentary about being rich (taped somewhere near the massive golden harp in his living room) and claimed he wasn’t sure whether he was rich.
And you’ll surely recall he’s the guy whose tenure in the administration ended with his telling a journalist from The New Yorker that Bannon was … maybe it’s just best if you Google it.
Omarosa Manigault lasted almost a year, preening around the White House, even bringing her wedding party there for a photo shoot. What exactly did she do there for work? Nobody was sure.
There is no better caricature of the Ohioan from Youngstown who moves to New York City to try to out-ruthless the most ruthless people in the world than Omarosa.
When Omarosa’s time at the White House ran out, April Ryan of American Urban Radio Networks reported she had to be escorted from the White House grounds after she tried to enter the residence to protest her firing to Trump personally, like that time on “The Apprentice,” season one, episode nine, in which she barged into the boardroom uninvited to argue with Trump’s impending decision to fire her.
The White House adviser Stephen Miller was also recently escorted from the set of CNN’s “State of the Union with Jake Tapper” after he, too, publicly excoriated Bannon. But we New Yorkers do not have to apologise for this, because, despite his complete lack of chill, Miller is somehow from Santa Monica, California.
We are so, so sorry
What else is there to say?
There is only sorry. Like any family, this city has its rich cousins, and it has its rich and gauche cousins who have no idea how to act.
Most of the time we pooh-pooh their antics (or quietly cheer them) in the pages of our tabloids, like an ongoing soap opera or morality play. But now they’re the entire country’s shame, constantly reinforcing their unfitness for the dignity of the White House.
Bannon’s mea culpa, in which he praised Don Jr.’s loyalty to the republic, sounded as if it were lifted from something between a communist show trial and an episode of “The Real Housewives of New York.”
And it’s unclear whether it will do him much good.
“In my experience with the president, you can criticise him, you can insult him publicly, and he will insult you back,” the former Trump aide Sam Nunberg told Business Insider. “Then two months going forward you’ll be best friends.”
“But you cannot insult his kids, and you cannot insult his business. Especially kids who aren’t in the White House … I think Steve should have apologised to Don Jr. immediately when his statement came out.”
As for Trump, he knows only one way to fight: publicly, crudely, litigiously. This is a man who, during his first divorce, used the city tabloids to flaunt his affair in front of his wife (and mother of three of his children).
With Bannon, Trump’s not just fighting anyone. He’s fighting someone he used to trust. Fighting Bannon is like fighting an old business partner – not some distant person, like a Gold Star parent. Not some woman, like Rosie O’Donnell, or Miss Universe (or your wife).
“At the end of the day everyone has seen publicly what we already knew,” Nunberg said. “Steve and the president are not friends – they’re allies. And I don’t blame Steve for not liking the president.”
Now here’s the question we’re facing as an entire nation, and it’s petty one at that: Can the president work with someone who doesn’t like him? So far, the White House is saying no. But then a lot depends on one rather whimsical man’s whims.
A Page Six scandal does not belong at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but our president is Trump, and so here we are.