Whether you like him or not, there’s no denying a simple fact about Michael Wolff: The man knows his audience.
The Fire and Fury author suggested during a Friday appearance on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher that Donald Trump is having an extramarital affair now, while serving as president. It’s a sensational allegation to be sure, and one that Wolff himself admits he cannot prove.
But proof isn’t what matters here. This exchange with Maher is all about showmanship, and putting it to work with an understanding of the internet-obsessed audience that consumes and analyzes every word of Trump news and gossip.
You can watch Maher’s exchange with Wolff yourself, but here’s the relevant bit. It started with Maher asking (roughly): Is there anything in the book that people haven’t picked up on yet?
“There is, but I can’t tell you what it is,” Wolff replied, a faint smile on his face.
“Well fuck you, Mike,” Maher retorted, chuckling. “Teasing us like that.”
Wolff continued: “There is something in the book that I was absolutely sure of, but it was so incendiary that I just didn’t have the ultimate proof.”
It’s here that Maher posits: Is it “a woman thing?” To which Wolff responds, “I didn’t have the blue dress,” referencing the infamous piece of evidence that proved Bill Clinton’s in-office dalliance in the late ’90s. Read the rest of the back-and-forth verbatim:
MAHER: Now is it about a woman?
WOLFF: It is.
MAHER: Oh, it is!
WOLFF: It is.
MAHER: Oh. It’s somebody he’s fucking now.
WOLFF: It is. You just have to read between the lines.
MAHER: What lines? Just tell us the line. You say it’s in the book.
WOLFF: It’s toward the end of the book. You just— you just have to— you’ll know it. Now that I’ve told you, when you hit that paragraph you’re going to say ‘bingo.’
Even if you think Wolff is full of it, it’s hard not to appreciate the way he plays this moment. He tells us outright that he has no proof and there’s nothing in the book to support the claim. But in the very same breath, he dangles the possibility at the end of a hook the internet has proven itself incapable of refusing: A scavenger hunt.
If there’s any theme tying together pop culture’s favorite examples of entertainment in 2018, it’s the growing sense of agency each fan possesses. From Game of Thrones to Star Wars to Black Mirror to Rick and Morty, fans all over are happily plucking out tidbits for endless analysis and interpretation on social media.
What Wolff does here is no different. He references what amounts to an easter egg in his book, tosses out a tantalizing clue, and trusts in the internet to do the rest. This shouldn’t be a surprise for anyone who’s been following along until now.
In the run-up to Fire and Fury‘s release, Wolff’s reputation for putting showmanship ahead of journalism preceded him. He even admitted, the book is just a “version of events I believe to be true.”
Saturday Night Live might have nailed it best last weekend, when Fred Armisen-as-Wolff appeared in a parody of MSNBC’s Morning Joe and fielded questions about what’s true and what’s not in Fire and Fury.
Asked about the veracity of the claims made in the book, Armisen-as-Wolff responded: “Look. You read it, right? And you liked it? You had fun? So what’s the problem? You got the gist, so shut up.”
It’s an SNL parody that hews so close to the reality we know.
The real Wolff doesn’t bother putting on airs when it comes to journalistic integrity. He makes no bones about what Fire and Fury is, and what it isn’t. It’s a sensational work of entertainment, moored to the singular perspective of an observer who’s admitted to filling in blanks.
Engaging with Maher in what amounts to gossip? Same story. Wolff is here to sell us on a piece of entertainment. Are you not entertained? Of course you are. Trump is the reality TV president and Wolff’s tell-all is our gossip rag.
In just the past two days Michael Wolff intimated Trump & Nikki Haley are having an affair, a porn star said Trump asked her to spank his bottom with a Forbes Magazine, Glenn Simpson accused Trump of money-laundering & cavorting with Russian mobsters & the government shutdown.
— James Gunn (@JamesGunn) January 20, 2018
On #realtime, Wolff alluded to an affair between Trump & an unnamed someone in the WH that he couldn’t confirm, but thought he’d get more questions on. He thought a paragraph at the end of the book would tip people off, but no one asked him. How’d I do @MichaelWolffNYC pic.twitter.com/QgkPMkkBAw
— laney (@misslaneym) January 20, 2018
At this point it’s mere speculation, but Michael Wolff has said that a paragraph toward the back of FIRE AND FURY reveals who Trump’s current mistress is (an affair that opens the president up to blackmail) and many online are insisting that THIS is the paragraph Wolff refers to: pic.twitter.com/qVRiPjZ5yX
— Seth Abramson (@SethAbramson) January 20, 2018