In an extraordinary step for a sitting president, Donald Trump had his lawyer demand on Thursday that Henry Holt & Co. and author Michael Wolff stop publication of a soon-to-be-released book about the chaotic first year of Trump’s presidency.
Instead, the publisher expedited the book’s release to Friday, four days before it was slated to hit bookstore shelves, in response to “unprecedented demand.” Published excerpts on Wednesday and Thursday whetted that appetite, and roiled Washington.
In the letter on Trump’s behalf, lawyer Charles J. Harder demanded that the author and publishing house “cease and desist from any further publication, release or dissemination” of the book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.”
The publisher, in announcing its decision to act immediately, said in a news release: “We see ‘Fire and Fury’ as an extraordinary contribution to our national discourse, and are proceeding with the publication of the book.”
The book includes stunning criticisms of Trump and his circle from a number of aides, most prominently former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon.
Bannon’s comments, including that it was “treasonous” and “unpatriotic” for Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr., son-in-law Jared Kushner and campaign manager Paul Manafort to have met in 2016 with Russians said to have “dirt” on Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, prompted Trump on Wednesday to rebuke his former advisor, saying Bannon had “lost his mind.”
Trump’s lawyers also sent a cease-and-desist letter to Bannon saying he had made “disparaging” and “outright defamatory” statements about Trump and Trump’s family to Wolff, violating a nondisclosure agreement Bannon had signed when he worked for Trump’s campaign. Any such agreement would not likely extend to Bannon’s subsequent White House employment.
The break between Trump and Bannon, who had bonded over their shared nationalist beliefs and anti-establishment populism, apparently caused further problems for Bannon. Prominent conservative donor Rebekah Mercer, who was a financial backer of Bannon’s Breitbart News website, indicated in a statement that she had withdrawn support.
The initial dust-up involving Bannon followed Wednesday’s publication of book excerpts in the Guardian newspaper and New York magazine. On Thursday, in a column published by the Hollywood Reporter titled “’You Can’t Make This S--- Up’: My Year Inside Trump’s Insane White House,” Wolff described how he got virtually unbridled access to Trump’s senior aides, frequently sitting on a couch in the West Wing as they came and went.
As in the excerpts a day earlier, Wolff wrote of White House dysfunction and “screaming fights,” sometimes in Trump’s presence; of the president’s night-time calls to “his billionaire friends” to complain of his staff’s incompetence; and of the staff’s own complaints, including from daughter Ivanka Trump and Kushner, her husband.
In response, the White House joined the president’s fight against Wolff’s book.
Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders described “Fire and Fury” as “a book full of lies,” “a complete fantasy” and “full of tabloid gossip.” When pressed for examples of falsehoods, she cited the book’s “ridiculous” claim that Trump didn’t know who then-House Speaker John A. Boehner was. She said the two men had played golf together and Trump had tweeted about Boehner in past years. She said Wolff also got the ages of some Trump aides wrong.
Sanders stopped short of saying Trump would go to court to prevent publication, referring reporters to the president’s lawyers.
Trump has threatened legal action throughout his life, both as a candidate and a businessman, but he often has not followed through with a lawsuit.
It’s very difficult for a public figure like Trump to win a libel suit, said Robert S. Bennett, a former federal prosecutor and Washington attorney who was President Clinton’s personal lawyer and has represented numerous political figures.
Sending the cease-and-desist letter may be a way to show others that Trump will “take aggressive action, even if it’s somewhat frivolous,” Bennett said. “It costs money to defend and is putting the world on notice.”
However, threatening to block publication of the book is “very ill-advised” and makes Trump look “weak,” Bennett said. Doing so makes the public wonder what he might be trying to hide and draws more attention to the book.
“You’re creating a lot more sales for his book, it would seem to me, by this action,” Bennett said.