WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump mounted a legal attack Thursday on a new book portraying him as a volatile and ill-equipped chief executive, but the publisher rebuffed his demand to halt its release and defiantly moved up official publication to Friday because of soaring interest.
In an 11-page letter, the president’s lawyer said the book, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” by Michael Wolff, as excerpted in a magazine article, includes false statements about Trump that “give rise to claims for libel” that could result in “substantial monetary damages and punitive damages.”
“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,” the letter said.
Undeterred, Henry Holt and Co., the publisher, announced that rather than desist, it would make the book available for sale starting at 9 a.m. Friday rather than wait for its original release date on Tuesday.
“We see ‘Fire and Fury’ as an extraordinary contribution to our national discourse, and are proceeding with the publication of the book,” the company said in a statement.
The book angered Trump in part by quoting Stephen Bannon, his former chief strategist, making derogatory comments about the president’s children. Bannon was quoted as saying that Donald Trump Jr. had been “treasonous” and “unpatriotic” for meeting with Russians during the 2016 campaign and that Ivanka Trump was “dumb as a brick.” Trump fired back Wednesday, saying that Bannon had “lost his mind” and had “nothing to do with me or my presidency.”
Bannon, who had stayed in touch with Trump sporadically after being pushed out of the White House last summer, sought to smooth over the rift during his Breitbart News radio show Wednesday night.
When a caller said that Trump had “made a huge mistake, Steve, bashing you like he did,” Bannon brushed it aside. “The president of the United States is a great man,” Bannon said. “You know I support him day in and day out, whether going through the country giving the ‘Trump Miracle’ speech or on the show or on the website.”
He assured another caller that Trump was still fighting for their shared cause. “Maybe things get off track, or stuff gets said, and all this heated stuff, but however, this is a guy, you voted for him, you supported him,” he said. “Is there any doubt in your mind he’s been fighting for and working for you, the deplorables, the forgotten man and woman, the silent majority, every day he’s been there?”
The president cited those comments Thursday when asked by reporters if Bannon had betrayed him. “I don’t know,” Trump said. “He called me a great man last night so, you know, he obviously changed his tune pretty quick.”
Asked why he had kept talking to Bannon, Trump said: “I don’t talk to him, I don’t talk to him. That’s just a misnomer.”
The letter to the publisher was sent by Charles J. Harder, a prominent libel lawyer based in Beverly Hills, California, to Wolff and Steve Rubin, president and publisher of Henry Holt. It follows a similar cease-and-desist letter sent by Harder on Wednesday night to Bannon.
While other presidents have avoided direct confrontations with publishers over unflattering books in part out of fear of giving them more publicity and promoting sales, Trump is furious about Wolff’s account and unwilling to let it go, according to advisers. Through a long career in real estate and entertainment, Trump has repeatedly threatened lawsuits against authors, journalists and others who angered him, but often has not followed through, and it was unclear whether he would in this case.
Wolff did not reply to a request for comment, but Wednesday night he said by email that he was “wholly comfortable with my numerous sources.”
The book, which quickly shot up to No. 1 on Amazon’s best-seller list list after articles about it Wednesday, presents Trump as an unengaged candidate and president who grew bored when an aide tried to explain the Constitution to him and refuses to read even one-page briefing papers.
Various advisers to the president are reported to have called him an “idiot,” a “dope” or “dumb” as dirt. And Melania Trump, the president’s wife, is described as being so unhappy about the prospect of life in the White House that she was in tears on election night.
In separate statements, the White House on Wednesday called the book “trashy tabloid fiction” that is “filled with false and misleading accounts,” and Melania Trump disputed the characterizations of her views.
Trump often reconciles with associates after feuds, but for the moment there was no love lost for Bannon in the president’s household.
Donald Trump Jr. wrote on Twitter:
Steve had the honor of working in the White House & serving the country. Unfortunately, he squandered that privilege & turned that opportunity into a nightmare of backstabbing, harassing, leaking, lying & undermining the President. Steve is not a strategist, he is an opportunist
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) January 3, 2018
Other advisers to Trump seemed relieved to be able to say good riddance to Bannon, whose acerbic approach alienated many in the president’s circle. Christopher Ruddy, chief executive of Newsmax Media, a rival conservative website, and a friend of Trump’s, said Bannon was a late arrival to Trump’s campaign and was never as important as he made out — and was now trying to settle scores.
“The truth is Steve Bannon represents just a small fraction of the Republican Party, folks who champion protectionism, isolationism and nativism,” Ruddy wrote. “If you believe the media spin, he also elected Donald Trump. But the truth is quite different: Trump elected Trump.”
Harder, the president’s lawyer, has represented Melania Trump and other high-profile figures in libel and defamation cases, including actors like Jude Law, Reese Witherspoon and Clint Eastwood and news media figures like Roger Ailes, the Fox News impresario. He won Hulk Hogan’s landmark invasion-of-privacy case against Gawker Media, a lawsuit that was secretly financed by Peter Thiel, the billionaire Silicon Valley entrepreneur, and resulted in the shuttering of Gawker.com.
Until recently, Harder represented Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood mogul, and threatened to sue The New York Times over an article documenting sexual harassment. But Harder no longer represents Weinstein, and no lawsuit has been filed.
In his letter to Wolff and his publisher, Harder said the book itself admits “that it contains untrue statements.” In an author’s note, Wolff writes that many of the accounts that he collected “are in conflict with one another; many, in Trumpian fashion, are baldly untrue.” He said he sometimes “let the players offer their versions, in turn allowing the reader to judge them,” and in other instances “settled on a version of events I believe to be true.”
Harder argued that that proves actual malice and reckless disregard for the truth, standards that courts use to judge whether a public person has been libeled. The lawyer wrote that the book “appears to cite no sources for many of its most damaging statements about Mr. Trump” and that some sources “have stated publicly that they never spoke to Mr. Wolff” or made statements attributed to them.
“Other alleged ‘sources’ of statements about Mr. Trump,” he added, “are believed to have no personal knowledge of the facts upon which they are making statements or are known to be unreliable and/or strongly biased against Mr. Trump, or there are other obvious reasons to question their reliability, accuracy or claims to have knowledge of alleged facts upon which they are purporting to make statements.”
Harder cited no specific statements that he judged untrue. But some people cited in the book have disputed episodes describing them. The book reports, for instance, that suspicions that the British had spied on Trump’s campaign to curry favor with President Barack Obama were fueled by Tony Blair, the former British prime minister.
Blair met with Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, in February and suggested “the possibility that the British had had the Trump campaign staff under surveillance.” The book says “it was unclear whether Blair’s information was rumor, informed conjecture, his own speculation, or solid stuff,” but Kushner and Bannon took it seriously enough to drive out to CIA headquarters in Virginia to ask. The CIA later reported back that it was a “miscommunication.”
Blair denied the account Thursday. “This story, as we have pointed out, is a complete fabrication,” he told BBC Radio 4. “I mean literally, from beginning to end. I’ve never had such conversations, in the White House, outside the White House, with Jared Kushner, with anybody else.”
More from The Daily Gazette: