A leaked copy of “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” by author Michael Wolff set off a political firestorm with its portrayal of an unprepared presidential candidate who didn’t particularly want to win the US election in 2016.
Originally scheduled for release on 9 January, its author last night revealed that date had been moved forward to today (Friday).
Some of the harshest quotes in the book came from Steve Bannon, the right-wing firebrand who headed the final stage of Trump’s campaign and became chief strategist at the White House before being fired in August.
Trump’s lawyer said on Thursday he would try to stop publication and threatened legal action against Bannon over “defamatory” comments in the book.
Charles Harder, Trump’s personal lawyer, in a legal notice provided to Reuters, warned of possible claims including libel against Wolff and publisher Henry Holt & Co and threatened to try to block publication of the book. Harder also told Reuters that “legal action is imminent” against Bannon.
Publisher Henry Holt said in a statement it had received a cease-and-desist letter from Trump’s attorney but would go ahead with publishing the book.
Trump has been engaged in a desperate attempt to discredit Bannon and distract from the claims made in the book since parts were made public.
But any lawsuits by Trump against Bannon or the author and publisher would almost certainly fail and could lead to more damaging disclosures, legal experts said.
Alan Dershowitz, an emeritus law professor at Harvard Law School, said a libel lawsuit by Trump would be a “terrible mistake” and “a nonstarter” that “no reasonable lawyer would recommend.”
Dershowitz, who has often publicly defended the legality of the president’s actions over the past year, said it is very difficult for public figures to prevail in libel suits. Trump would need to show Wolff and publisher Holt knew statements by Bannon and others were false or they acted with reckless disregard for whether or not they were true.
Trump’s falling out with Bannon deepened on Wednesday, saying his former adviser had “lost his mind,” in a blistering statement issued after comments in the book were made public.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders heaped scorn on Bannon and the book at her briefing on Thursday. She said Breitbart News should consider firing Bannon and attempted to cast doubt on Wolff’s accuracy.
She called the book “some trash” that came from “an author that no one had ever heard of until today.”
“This book is mistake after mistake after mistake,” she said.
In the book, Bannon was quoted as describing a June 2016 meeting with a group of Russians at Trump Tower in New York as “treasonous” and “unpatriotic.” The meeting, held after the Russians promised damaging information on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, was attended by Donald Trump Jr, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager at the time.
Trump’s statement also diminished Bannon’s role in the election victory and accused him of leaking to the media. Before joining the campaign, Bannon headed the conservative Breitbart News website and proved to be a divisive figure in the White House. He returned to Breitbart after being fired, although he is reported to have continued to talk with Trump.
‘CHANGED HIS TUNE’
Bannon’s reaction to the book controversy has been muted. In interviews with Breitbart News after the news broke, he called Trump a “great man” and pledged continued support for the president’s agenda.
The president took note. “He called me a great man last night so he obviously changed his tune pretty quick,” Trump told reporters on Thursday. “I don’t talk to him. That’s a misnomer.”
Bradley Moss, a Washington lawyer specializing in national security law, said any non-disclosure agreement would not apply to Bannon once he became a government employee. The government has far less power to limit speech by employees than private companies, Moss said.
A lawsuit could hurt Trump because Bannon’s lawyers would be entitled to interview White House officials and collect potentially damaging documents from them in his defense, Moss said.
“I assume the cease-and-desist letter is aimed primarily at the public,” added Michael Dorf, a professor at Cornell Law School. “The idea that he could block publication is absurd.”
On Thursday, the White House also said no personal devices, including cellphones, would be allowed in the White House West Wing beginning next week for security purposes. The moves followed the Bannon split but had been considered for some time, White House officials said.
Bannon helped Trump shape a populist, anti-establishment message and had been the president’s link to his hard-line conservative base of support, which is often at odds with the Republican Party establishment.
The story that triggered the Trump-Bannon split was an offshoot of the investigation into whether Trump campaign aides colluded with Russia to sway the election to Trump, allegations Trump and Moscow deny.
Manafort and business associate Rick Gates, another campaign aide, pleaded not guilty in November to federal charges brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller including conspiracy to launder money. Manafort sued Mueller on Wednesday, alleging that his investigation exceeded its legal authority.