When candidate Donald Trump first spoke of a plan to “open up” libel laws during the 2016 presidential campaign, he seemed serious. And he also seemed ill-informed: As president, Trump would lack the requisite power over the courts to make it easier for people to secure damages for defaming other people.
Now installed in the White House, Trump has occasionally returned to his authoritarian fantasy of shutting down independent media outlets. Like the time he riffed on Twitter about de-licensing NBC News — something neither he nor his allies at the Federal Communications Commission could manage. A good many media types have rolled their eyes at such conduct, and moved along to other stories. Margaret Talev, a Bloomberg White House correspondent and the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, told the Erik Wemple Blog that such outbursts were “rhetoric” and not part of a policy initiative.
The Thursday letter from Trump attorney Charles Harder goes a bit beyond rhetoric, though perhaps not that far. It’s directed at Michael Wolff and his publisher, Henry Holt & Co., over his impending book, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” which depicts the president as an unstable and incompetent man. “Mr. Trump hereby demands that you immediately cease and desist from any further publication, release or dissemination of the Book, the Article, or any excerpts or summaries of either of them, to any person or entity, and that you issue a full and complete retraction and apology to my client as to all statements made about him in the Book and Article that lack competent evidentiary support” reads the action part of the letter. Chock full of the usual lawyerly threat verbiage, the letter alleges that the book charges defamation, libel per se, and false light invasion of privacy (against the president!), not to mention an argument that publication of the book messes with Stephen K. Bannon’s agreement with the Trump campaign.
Laughable, all of it. The Erik Wemple Blog doesn’t think too highly of the publicly released excerpts of Wolff’s book, which appear poorly substantiated and shot through with shaky assertions. Those poorly substantiated and shaky assertions should — and will — hit bookstores Jan. 5, four days earlier than scheduled. Many of them have already surfaced in highly circulated excerpt form — so there’s very little to cease and desist from anymore.
The threat letter is drawn up by Trump’s private lawyer; this is not an official White House action. In her press briefing Thursday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders spread bluster over the cable-news airwaves. “There are numerous mistakes, but I’m not going to waste my time or the country’s time going page by page talking about a book that’s complete fantasy and just full of tabloid gossip,” Sanders said, focusing on a passage in which the president is quoted as saying he didn’t know who former House speaker John Boehner was. Trump has played golf with Boehner.
Just for the record — the standard response of any party stung by a mostly correct investigative story is to lash back with something along the lines of: Oh, the falsehoods, inaccuracies and misrepresentations are too numerous to recount!
If Trump could only press a big button and snuff out the book, surely he would. After all, he has shown little understanding of and appreciation for the limitations on executive power programmed into the Constitution. Just over the holiday break, he riffed to the New York Times, “I have absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department.”
Lacking that ability, Trump the president is behaving pretty much like Trump the businessman. Suing people, or, failing that, threatening to sue people. We’ve seen this from Trump-the-politician before, as when he threatened to sue the New York Times over its investigation of his treatment of women. Now a CNN analyst is reporting that Bannon, who fed Wolff a number of juicy quotes about Trump and his lieutenants, is thinking of responding with paper:
Don’t say that the media didn’t prepare us for this enduring national embarrassment. A USA Today investigation during the campaign found that Trump had been involved in at least 3,500 legal actions over the previous three decades.
New office, same act.