Why Trump can’t halt release of Micheal Wolff’s tell-all “Fire and Fury” book

News, Politics

On Thursday, January 4, 2018, President Donald Trump directed his lawyers to stop the release of a behind-the-scenes book that’s loaded with embarrassing allegations. But while the president clearly had reason to want the book killed, the law was not on his side. Legal maneuvering, in fact, rarely stops a book from publication.

The book in question, journalist Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, contains numerous allegations of illegal behavior, from collusion with Russia by Donald Trump, Jr. to inappropriate behavior by the president himself, specifically his sexual pursuit of friends’ wives. The book also raises questions about Trump’s mental and emotional competence to handle the pressures of the presidency, and reveals such disconcerting observations as:

  • Trump’s 2016 victory not only befuddled the soon-to-be Commander in Chief, but it brought his wife, Melania, to tears “– and not of joy.”
  • Trump was angry that “A-list” celebrities shunned his inauguration.
  • Upon taking office, the Trump administration had no priorities to pursue.

Trump’s lawyers issued a legal notice addressed to Wolff and the book’s publisher, Henry Holt and Co., demanding the company “immediately cease and desist from any further publication, release or dissemination of the book,” or excerpts and summaries of its contents. Trump’s legal brain trust argued the book is inaccurate and, thus, defames the president.

However, the bar for defamation is high, especially for public figures, such as celebrities and politicians. And Trump is both.

Free speech, opinion, and defamation

“It’s a prior restraint of free speech issue,” says attorney William T. Webb of San Francisco-based Webb Legal Group. And, Webb adds, attempts to halt the book’s release amounts to “a fool’s errand.”

Because free speech is so fundamental to our democracy, Trump would have to prove the statements in Wolff’s book are false and defamatory, Webb says. “But keep in mind that Wolff is one step removed from the statements that are embarrassing to Trump.  In order to win a lawsuit, Trump would have to prove somehow that Wolff’s sources did not make the statements attributed to them. They might deny their statements at trial, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t say it in an unguarded moment before,” Webb adds.

In fact, Wolff claims to have dozens of hours of recorded interviews of senior White House staff, including Bannon. Wolff also said there were no ground rules placed on his access, nor was he held to restrictions regarding how he would report what he learned.

Consequently, Trump’s lawyers not only failed to halt the release of the book, but their actions prompted the publisher to defiantly release the book ahead of schedule. And, in a kind of Streisand Effect, Fire and Fury became an instant best-seller. (Named after singer and actress Barbra Streisand, whose efforts to suppress photos of her California home backfired, the Streisand Effect describes how attempts to suppress titillating information can result instead in its viral dissemination.)

Trump is not alone in his efforts to stop the publication of content he deems embarrassing or an invasion of privacy. Both Tom Cruise and Aretha Franklin sued to prevent the publication of books with embarrassing revelations, and courts determined their arguments of right-to-privacy or for protection against defamation were unfounded. As for Fire and Fury, bookstores in Washington D.C., New York, and Los Angeles reported selling out of the initial order. And Amazon.com already has the book on back-order.