It will likely be the most controversial political book of the year – and we are not even a fortnight into 2018. But what does Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House tells us about Washington’s relations with China?
Not an enormous amount, is WiC’s verdict after reading it – though for policymakers in Beijing it will likely be undergoing a speedy translation into Chinese for the many lessons it holds about Trump’s character, psychology and reading habits. Certainly it is impossible to imagine a book as revealing as this about President Xi Jinping ever appearing on bookshelves.
Xi and China’s first lady make only a brief appearance in Wolff’s narrative. This occurs when they visit Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort for a summit and a dinner (during which they ate Dover sole, haricots verts and Thumbelina carrots while Trump bombed Syria). We learn that ahead of their visit Trump required tutoring, not least because he would refer to the Chinese leader as “Mr X-I” and instead was “told to think of him as a woman and call him ‘she’.”
Wolff also says that China’s first couple grasped how to deal with Donald Trump very fast. “They were in an agreeable mood, evidently willing to humour Trump. And they quickly figured out that if you flatter him, he flatters you.”
At the other end of that Mar-a-Lago dining table was the hostile presence of Steve Bannon, the most Sinophobic person in the entire Trump government. Wolff makes Bannon’s China views plain towards the beginning of the book describing a dinner in late 2016 he attended between the Trump strategist and former Fox News boss Roger Ailes.
As Bannon warns Ailes: “China’s everything. Nothing else matters. We don’t get China right, we don’t get anything right. This whole thing is very simple. China is where Nazi Germany was in 1929 to 1930. The Chinese, like the Germans, are the most rational people in the world, until they are not. And they’re gonna flip like Germany in the thirties. You’re going to have a hypernationalist state, and once that happens you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”
In some ways there is a kind of symmetry to the book’s structure. Bannon attacks China in the first chapter and in the last it is an interview he gives about China (and the related issue of North Korea) that finally leads to his being fired from the Trump administration. In it he speaks stridently (and without prior White House permission) to American Prospect, and returns to his earlier anti-China theme, but in doing so implicitly criticises the president’s soft handling of Beijing. “To me the economic war with China is everything. And we have to be maniacally focused on that. If we continue to lose it, we’re five years away, I think, 10 years at the most, of hitting an inflection point from which we’ll never be able to recover,” he tells the US public policy magazine.
And as to Bannon’s many salacious and derogatory comments in Wolff’s book, a furious Trump last week gave this verdict: “He not only lost his job, he lost his mind”.
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