Foreign Leaders Wary of Being Burned by ‘Fire and Fury’

Only five months ago, world leaders reacted with public disapproval of U.S. President Donald Trump’s promise to respond to any North Korean aggression with “fire and fury.” Now a new “fire and fury” is occupying their thoughts — Michael Wolff’s controversial tell-all book, in which the author claims White House insiders think Trump is mentally unfit to be president.

White House officials have dismissed the book as “complete fantasy” and “tabloid gossip,” while several errors in Wolff’s account were quickly identified. Nevertheless, the book rocketed to the top of the Amazon best-seller list and Wolff’s accusations became fodder for endless discussion on U.S. and world news programs.

​When it came to North Korea, leaders warned that Trump’s rhetoric would likely escalate confrontation rather than resolve it. With Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, which was published Friday, they have preferred to keep mouths shut — partly from fear of damaging relations between their countries and the Trump administration.

“There’s no benefit for us to comment on the claims made in Wolff’s book,” a senior German official told VOA, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “But for us, the book with its apparent leaks from inside the White House — and more importantly the political fallout in Washington — portrays an alarming picture of an America in dangerous upheaval. That adds to our worries about America’s reliability as an ally — something that Trump has given us cause to question already,” he added.

Surprising frankness

In March, the normally reticent German Chancellor Angela Merkel underlined her doubts about the dependability of the United States with surprising frankness in a speech in Berlin, after Trump lambasted major NATO allies over their military contributions and refused to endorse a global climate change accord during awkward back-to-back summits with the Europeans. 

“Recent days have shown me that the times when we could rely completely on others are over to a certain extent,” Merkel, an Atlanticist, said.  

Shockwaves have gone back and forth across the Atlantic ever since. 

There is as yet no evidence that the furor over the Wolff book is damaging America’s relations with its allies or emboldening its enemies, but it comes in the wake of disagreements over immigration, climate change, trade, and recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital that have made Trump and his “America First” agenda highly unpopular with the European public.

Some of Trump’s mercurial tweets have caused deep offense, notably in November when British lawmakers reacted furiously to President Trump’s retweeting of anti-Muslim videos initially posted by a far-right British activist who had been convicted of hate speech. That earned a public rebuke from Prime Minister Theresa May — the third time she has done so.

‘Difficult to judge’

Australia’s former prime minister, Julia Gillard, has been one of the few senior politicians in a U.S.-allied country to broach the subject of Trump’s mental fitness publicly, although she waited to do so until after leaving office. While cautioning in July against insulting Trump with charges of mental illness, she said that some individuals were genuinely concerned. 

“From the outside I think it is very difficult to judge someone else’s mental health … so I think there’s some need for caution here,” Gillard told an Australian television outlet. “But I do think if President Trump continues with some of the tweeting, et cetera that we’ve seen, that this will be in the dialogue.”

The media in Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have been less wary than officials and quickly focused on the claims in Wolff’s book about Trump’s mental fitness. “Is Trump still sane?” was the main headline last week in Germany’s conservative newspaper, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Voices of caution

Britain’s The Times splashed across its front page in large type: “Trump’s mental health questioned by top aide.” And in the story below it noted that Steve Bannon, a major source for Wolff’s book and onetime key Trump adviser, “openly questioned his fitness to serve and predicted that he would resign to avoid being removed by his own cabinet.”

While the European media has feasted on Wolff’s book, there have been other voices cautioning against accepting Wolff’s portrayal of Trump at face value. Some commentators have pointed out that Wolff has a history of sensationalizing and they note the sourcing for the book is often vague. 

Others have argued there is a failure on the part of foreign commentators to appreciate that a lot of what Trump says and does is geared to appeal to his supporters and his voting base. 

Writing in Le Figaro, a French conservative newspaper, Maxime Tandonnet, an essayist and former top French bureaucrat who served as a counselor in the cabinet of Nicolas Sarkozy, cast the book as “a compilation of stories, gossip and testimonies against Trump’s person, personal life and family intimacy.” And the press reception of the book he characterized as “a sort of apotheosis of media lynching, very fashionable for the times.”

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