Onstage at the Central Library of Free Library of Philadelphia on Tuesday night, Michael Wolff betrayed no modesty about the runaway success of his tell-all on the inner workings of the Trump administration: "It's beyond a book," he said. "It's become a political event in itself."
Indeed, Wolff's Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, now in its 11th printing since its release Jan. 5, has seized the political conversation like few accounts of the Trump presidency have — in a year in which readers have grown used to relentless news cycles and near-constant push notifications teasing explosive reporting from inside the White House. President Trump has spent the last several weeks decrying Wolff, tweeting indignantly about his own mental stability and threatening its publisher with lawsuits.
Wolff, for his part, is deeply unconcerned about it all.
"These endless attacks on me? OK. Let's sell some more books," he said Tuesday night, to laughter.
Wolff's appearance at the Free Library was the first stop on his book tour and drew hundreds, with the crowd filling the downstairs auditorium and rows of seats in two overflow rooms. For a few days it was nearly impossible to find a copy of Wolff's book locally; many in the audience said they were looking forward to being able to read it.
In a dishy, hour-long chat, moderated by WHYY's Dick Polman, Wolff said he'd gained access to the White House by something akin to osmosis, posting up on a couch in the West Wing reception area and chatting with anyone who walked by. "There was no grand moment when they said, 'Yes, oh, God, let's do this,' " he said. "I was let in without anyone weighing the meaning or consequence of what I was going to do."
He'd tell staffers he was writing a book, scheduled to come out next year: "For some of these guys, that was a lifetime away. I mean, they worked for Donald Trump. Surely, the world would end before that."
Wolff's portrait of the Trump White House is one of chaos, with staffers struggling for traction, loyalties constantly shifting, all presided over by a man whose associates, Wolff said, regard Trump as "appallingly stupid." He called Steve Bannon, the former editor of the far-right site Breitbart News and Trump's former chief strategist, "a remarkable source" who became disillusioned with the president and his family during his brief sojourn in the White House.
(After the publication of the first excerpts of Fire and Fury, Bannon was canned from Breitbart, lost nearly all favor among Trump supporters, and earned a dreaded Trumpian nickname: "Sloppy Steve.")
Tuesday night, Wolff dismissed questions about some inaccuracies in the book and criticisms that have dogged him for years about his reporting style and occasionally vague sourcing. He said daily White House reporters generally are talented professionals.
"But if you sit in the briefing room, you learn nothing," he said. "I was not like a reporter. People ask 'Didn't you press them [Trump staffers]? Didn't you ask about what they were doing? Didn't you, didn't you, didn't you?' "
He did not, he said: "I didn't say anything. I was just the guy listening, occasionally nodding my head as if in agreement, and over time, they poured their hearts out."
The crowd punctuated the chat with laughter and applause throughout the night, clapping when Polman mentioned Bannon had been subpoenaed by special counsel Robert Mueller that morning, sometimes finishing Wolff's sentences: "The man [Trump] is just …" he began, then paused.
"A liar!" a chorus answered from the audience. At times, the atmosphere in the room felt like a group therapy session for the politically overwhelmed.
Attendees said they enjoyed the talk, and had been drawn by the political storm around the book and its promise of insider information: "Just the fact that someone had inside information on the White House, that someone knew more than what was being conveyed" to the public, said Elmeda Volken of New Jersey, in line to get her book signed.
Alan Cohn of Philadelphia said he'd seen Wolff on TV, was curious about the stir the book had caused, and came to get a copy of his own.
"For them to attack it so much," he said, "it's probably true."