President Trump claimed Thursday that he had tamed rogue former adviser Steve Bannon as the president’s attorney threatened legal action to block publication of an unflattering book about the Trump team, and the White House pushed back ferociously in the media against Mr. Bannon’s tell-all accusations.
Libel lawyer Charles Harder threatened an unprecedented defamation lawsuit by a sitting president against book publisher Henry Holt & Co. and Michael Wolff, author of “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” which quotes Mr. Bannon extensively dishing dirt on Mr. Trump and his family members.
The publisher responded by moving up the book’s release date to Friday. It was already No. 1 on Amazon’s best-seller list.
The lawyer’s 11-page letter says excerpts published this week include false statements that “give rise to claims for libel” and could gain the president “substantial monetary damages and punitive damages.”
The president “demands that you immediately cease and desist from any further publication” and issue a complete retraction and apology to Mr. Trump, the lawyer told the publisher and author.
Mr. Wolff suggested that the president’s actions had only increased pending sales of the book.
“Here we go,” the author tweeted. “You can buy it (and read it) tomorrow. Thank you, Mr. President.”
While the threat apparently won’t prevent the book’s release, Mr. Bannon made some warm comments about Mr. Trump in a radio interview Wednesday night after he received a similar cease-and-desist letter. The president suggested that the threat of legal action had cowed his fired former chief strategist.
“I don’t talk to him. That’s just a misnomer,” Mr. Trump said.
Among Mr. Bannon’s derogatory observations in the book are barbs at the president’s children. He called Donald Trump Jr. “treasonous” for meeting with Russians during the 2016 campaign and said Ivanka Trump was “dumb as a brick.” The furious president said Mr. Bannon “lost his mind” after Mr. Trump fired him in August.
“The president of the United States is a great man,” Mr. Bannon said late Wednesday night. “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.”
In another ominous development for Mr. Bannon, billionaire conservative donor Rebekah Mercer said Thursday that she had distanced herself from him after years of providing financial support for his projects.
“I support President Trump and the platform upon which he was elected,” she told The Washington Post in a statement. “My family and I have not communicated with Steve Bannon in many months and have provided no financial support to his political agenda, nor do we support his recent actions and statements.”
Ms. Mercer said, “I have a minority interest in Breitbart News, and I remain committed in my support for them.”
The White House also belittled persistent questions in the media about Mr. Trump’s mental state. Mr. Wolff insinuated in an article in The Hollywood Reporter on Thursday that the president is mentally unfit for the job.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called the accusation “disgraceful and laughable.”
“If he was unfit, he probably wouldn’t be sitting there and wouldn’t have defeated the most qualified group of candidates the Republican Party has ever seen,” she said. “This is an incredibly strong and good leader. That’s why we’ve had a successful 2017 and why we’re going to continue to do great things as we move forward in this administration.”
Meanwhile, White House aides and Trump allies went on the offensive, poking holes in the book and questioning Mr. Bannon’s motives in a variety of forums Thursday. Former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci defended the president and his family on several morning news TV shows, calling Donald Trump Jr. “an American patriot.”
“To call him treasonous, you got something wrong with you, pal,” Mr. Scaramucci said of Mr. Bannon on CNN’s “New Day.” “You’ve got to get back to your therapist, OK? And get back on the air, and take it back.”
Mr. Scaramucci said of the book, “A lot of it’s nonsense.”
Presidential aide Dan Scavino posted a photograph on Twitter of Mr. Trump at a golf course with then-House Speaker John A. Boehner in 2013. The book portrays Mr. Trump as not knowing Mr. Boehner’s name during the 2016 campaign.
“The fact that there was a claim that the president didn’t know who John Boehner was is pretty ridiculous considering the majority of you have seen photos,” Mrs. Sanders told reporters. “I mean, that’s pretty simple and pretty basic.”
Newsmax publisher Christopher Ruddy, a friend of Mr. Trump, wrote in a column that the book “appears like a compilation of score settling.”
“Bannon, angry about being tossed from the White House, takes pot shots at the president, his family members, and White House aides he crossed swords with,” Mr. Ruddy wrote. “The truth is Steve Bannon represents just a small fraction of the Republican Party, folks who champion protectionism, isolationism and nativism.”
Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin commented on Twitter, “We have become used to #FakeNews, now we have #FakeBooks! #MAGA.”
Mr. Wolff’s book contains many observations from White House staffers and Trump friends portraying the president as unfit for office, intellectually disinterested and with the short attention span of a child needing to be managed by adults.
As far as a sitting president suing for libel, there is no historical precedent. While presidents are often sued in office over their official actions, it’s believed that no president has ever filed a lawsuit against someone else while in office.
Some allies of President George W. Bush felt he should have sued the National Enquirer in 2005 when the publication asserted that he had started drinking alcohol again (he quit drinking years before getting elected). Mr. Bush didn’t sue.
Legal analysts have pointed out that filing suit would open up the president to the process of civil discovery, which would likely entail giving depositions and possibly turning over records sought by the defendant.
As a public figure, Mr. Trump would need to prove a standard of “actual malice” — essentially to prove that the publisher seriously doubted the truth of what he published or believed that he was very likely publishing false material.
Mr. Harder’s letter to the publisher of “Fire and Fury” and to Mr. Wolff said the president’s legal team is “investigating numerous false and/or baseless statements that you have made about Mr. Trump.” The letter also states that the legal team is looking into possible defamation of Mr. Trump and his family and invasion of privacy.
It accuses the author of actual malice.
“Actual malice (reckless disregard for the truth) can be proven by the fact that the book admits in the Introduction that it contains untrue statements,” the letter states. “Moreover, the book appears to cite to no sources for many of its most damaging statements about Mr. Trump.”
Mr. Harder adds, “Also, many of your so-called ‘sources’ have stated publicly that they never spoke to Mr. Wolff and/or never made the statements that are being attributed to them. Other alleged ‘sources’ of statements about Mr. Trump 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.”
Blocking a book from being published is known as prior restraint, a censorship generally denied by courts under the First Amendment.
Asked Thursday if the president believes in the First Amendment, Mrs. Sanders replied, “The president absolutely believes in the First Amendment. But as we’ve said before, the president also believes in making sure that information is accurate before pushing it out as fact, when it certainly and clearly is not.”
Amid the continued furor over damaging insider information coming from the West Wing, the White House also announced Thursday that staffers will no longer be able to use their personal cellphones, as of next week.
“The security and integrity of the technology systems at the White House is a top priority for the Trump administration and therefore starting next week the use of all personal devices for both guests and staff will no longer be allowed in the West Wing,” Mrs. Sanders said in a statement.
Mrs. Sanders rejected the suggestion from some journalists that the move was a response to the book and to leaks, because staffers won’t be able to text to reporters.
“That’s a ridiculous characterization,” she said. “This is about the security and the integrity of the technology systems here at the White House. This is something that has been in process and in the works for over six months.”
• S.A. Miller and Sally Persons contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC.