January 5, 2018
Donald Trump trying to halt publication of Michael Wolff’s new book is the best conceivable thing for Michael Wolff’s new book
by Ian Dreiblatt
I don’t know much about 2018—not yet, anyway—but I know this: it’s going to be fucking exhausting. I can tell it’s going to be exhausting because, well, it already is. Day five. Here we go.
Today is the 350th day of Donald Trump’s presidency, somehow. It has been, to borrow a phrase from Tocqueville, “un show du shitte incessant.” It’s not just his administration’s mendacity—though they’ve been record-smashingly mendacious—and it’s not just their cruelty—though they’ve been heart-jabbingly cruel—but also their intense farts-for-brains-edness, the seeping, noxious chaos that’s been their watchword, the spectacle they’ve offered of public abjection so pure that all too many of us have been drawn into enjoying it on just that level—as spectacle (insert popcorn emoji here)—while our houses burned. The man is a dignity desert in a very thirsty world.
Now, after a year of standing outside the churning sancta from which Trump’s policies and statements emanate—primarily the White House and the Supervillain Tower he maintains in New York—we’re finally getting a closer look this week, thanks to some early serial New York has published from Michael Wolff’s forthcoming exposé Fire and Fury, due out from Henry Holt on Tuesday. Wolff is a perfectly credible reporter, whose writing on candidate Trump’s reading habits we discussed in happier times, and he’s enjoyed considerable access to the Trump White House. The book, from the looks of it (another excerpt appeared yesterday in the Hollywood Reporter, where Wolff is a columnist), is a fucking scorcher.
It’s all here: Trump calling Sally Yates, at the time the acting attorney general, “such a cunt” for declining to break the law at his behest; noted genius Steve Bannon calling meetings between the Trump campaign and Russian officials “treasonous”; the president being described “by almost every member of the senior staff on repeated occasions [as] ‘like a child’”; his habit of making “seething, self-pitying, and unsolicited phone calls to… casual acquaintance[s]” in the evenings — and on and on. Basically, the book appears to confirm the sense we’ve had all along: the apocalyptic goon show we’ve been watching, rife with back-biting, vain jockeying, and pervasive, unceremonious stink, was indeed a sign that all was not well in the halls of government. Which, duh, but it’s nonetheless valuable to have the facts fully logged in the public record.
Unsurprisingly, Fire and Fury is poised to explode — as Brian Stelter noted yesterday at CNN, massive response to the initial excerpt has prompted Holt to expedite promotional efforts considerably, throwing Wolff in front of every available TV camera from now through next week. Good — he’s done his work, enduring several orders of hell and conducting more than 200 interviews with Trump officials; he deserves a victory lap, and we will all, surely, drink up whatever gold-flecked milk he continues to pour out for us.
But yesterday, Trump himself joined publicity efforts for the book—the stuff authors and publishers can usually only dream about—by threatening to sue Henry Holt, its director Steve Rubin, and Wolff unless they halt publication. To be clear, there is mathematically no chance of them doing this. Zero. Anyone who knows anything about journalism or capitalism can see how this one ends. Trump may as well sue the moon for the incidental harm caused by the word “gibbous.”
He has, however, made clear that Wolff’s reporting touches a nerve. The inventor of the exclamation “Dishonest media!” is looking a little shaken, which can’t make anyone less interested in the contents of the book. Champagne at Henry Holt is surely being uncorked.
Trump’s (lawyer’s) letter, which has been obtained and published by the Washington Post, is the kind of thing lawyers are trained to send out on a hair trigger. It accuses the book of libel and false light invasion of privacy, and fires some additional shots across Bannon’s bow for seeming violations of the non-disclosure agreement he signed during the campaign. It goes on to demand an advance copy of the book and, in a moment of gently whinnying irony, concludes with several pages ordering the author and publisher to preserve various kinds of, er, evidence.
A few quick observations here:
- As for the Bannon stuff — it’s been abundantly clarified by the federal courts that government employees commenting on matters of public interest, and journalists who report them, enjoy sweeping First Amendment protections. It would be legit hilarious if Trump sued him over this.
- Let’s talk about defamation. The truth, by definition, can never be defamatory; defamation is the spreading of false and harmful information about another person. For this reason, truth is a defense to defamation — that is, a defendant can prove that a particular statement wasn’t defamatory by proving that it was true. Now picture the statements Trump is angry about, and then picture the federal legal proceeding in which teams of lawyers, empowered by the rules of discovery, begin making inquiries into the background underlying allegations that Donald Trump, the least respected person in the world, is not admired by his staff. Picture the documents. Envision the testimony. My god, it’d be beautiful.
- Still, while this particular letter is stupid, it’s worth observing that it was written by a guy, Charles Harder, with serious chops in the curtailment of journalistic speech. Harder is the lawyer who led the suit by which Peter Thiel took down Gawker. He’s also the dude behind Harvey Weinstein’s pledge to sue the New York Times. Repression is his business, and business has been good. It’d be great to have heard the last of him, but we probably haven’t. Just saying.
And so ends another cold-as-shit week in Donald Trump’s America, as our first and worst citizen rounds first base and reminisces over how much better he liked the wiffle ball league back home. This is all going great.
UPDATE: Indeed, Henry Holt has moved publication of this book up to… the recent past. As in, it’s out now, though some booksellers, especially on the west coast, say they’re currently taking orders but haven’t yet received physical stock.
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.