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Opinion Trump’s lawsuit against Bob Woodward is absurd — and dangerous

Former president Donald Trump at a campaign event on Jan. 28 in Columbia, S.C. (Alex Brandon/AP)
3 min

Donald Trump’s public words — speeches, interviews and written statements — were an essential record of his presidential campaign and four years in the Oval Office. But judging by a lawsuit Mr. Trump filed against our colleague Bob Woodward and his book publisher, Simon & Schuster, the former president thinks he personally owns the words he spoke while president. This is absurd — and intended to intimidate and harass.

Alas, such legal gambits are becoming more common. They can have a chilling effect on journalists, human rights defenders or others seeking to hold the powerful to account. Efforts are already underway in a number of states as well as in Britain and the European Union to strengthen protections against frivolous actions known as “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” or SLAPPs.

Mr. Woodward interviewed Mr. Trump 20 times on the record for his book “Rage,” published before the 2020 election. One session was in 2016, while Mr. Trump was running, while the remainder took place in 2019-2020. In the fourth interview, on Dec. 30, 2019, Mr. Trump said, “Okay. For the book only, right?” A deputy press secretary, Hogan Gidley, added, “Right. No stories coming out, no nothing.” Woodward says the agreement was that he was interviewing Trump for a book, not for articles in The Post. When “Rage” was published in September 2020, about a half-hour of the audio recordings were released to The Post and CNN, and Mr. Trump raised no objection then. He criticized what Mr. Woodward had written about him but also said, “I said really good things in that book.”

The Trump Tapes: 20 interviews that show why he is an unparalleled danger by Bob Woodward

Mr. Woodward put eight hours of the interviews in an audio book, “The Trump Tapes,” and wrote about the tapes in our pages last year. Mr. Trump claims in the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida that his permission for recording was “for the sole purpose of Woodward being able to write a single book.” Mr. Woodward says this is not true and he and his publisher will aggressively defend against the suit. Mr. Trump claims to own the copyright to the sound recordings and audiobook, and seeks more than $49 million.

A president is entitled to private deliberations and to write his own memoirs. But in speaking on the record to a journalist, Mr. Trump was engaging in the well-worn practice of defending his record, using the interview to communicate and govern. If such activity was proprietary, then every interview might require payment to the president for his words. It would privatize what is a very public responsibility. Then again, Mr. Trump has long failed to respect the distinction between public service and private gain. “Everything is mine,” he said in one interview in a near-whisper to Mr. Woodward.

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This lawsuit, were it to succeed, would hamper presidential and campaign speech, which are core currencies of our democracy. Mr. Trump’s case deserves to be dismissed, but it would also be wise to erect barriers against such claims in the future. The words of a sitting president are of great historical value and public interest. The president should serve the interests of the people, not his own pocket.

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Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).