Donald Trump's lawyers threatened publishing firm Henry Holt & Co over Michael Wolff's account of the president's first year in office. The firm responded by speeding up the release date of 'Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House' to Friday.

Cover of Michael Wolff's 'Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House', courtesy of Henry Holt and Co.
Cover of Michael Wolff's 'Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House', courtesy of Henry Holt and Co. (Reuters)

US publishing firm Henry Holt & Co said it is releasing Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House' on Friday, moving up its publication from next Tuesday, after US President Donald Trump's legal team attempted to prevent it reaching bookshops.

Trump's lawyer said on Thursday he would try to stop publication of the book that excerpts so far suggest portrays an inept president in a fumbling White House.

The lawyer also threatened legal action against former top aide Steve Bannon over "defamatory" comments in the book.

Fire and Fury set off a political firestorm with its portrayal of Trump as not particularly wanting to win the US presidency in 2016 and unprepared for the job.

Some of the harshest commentary came from Bannon, the right-wing firebrand who headed the final stage of Trump's campaign and became chief strategist at the White House before being fired in August.

Charles Harder, Trump's personal lawyer, in a legal notice released to media, warned of possible claims including libel against Wolff and publisher Henry Holt & Co and threatened to try to block publication of the book. Harder also told Reuters that "legal action is imminent" against Bannon.

Henry Holt said in a statement it had received a cease-and-desist letter from Trump's attorney but would go ahead with publishing the book.

Earlier, the publishing house said that "due to unprecedented demand," it would release the book on Friday morning, rushing it to print after previously planning to put it out next Tuesday.

Trump tweeted on Thursday night: "I authorized Zero access to White House (actually turned him [Wolff] down many times) for author of phony book! I never spoke to him for book. Full of lies, misrepresentations and sources that don’t exist. Look at this guy’s past and watch what happens to him and Sloppy Steve!"

"Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my presidency. When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind," Trump said. (AFP Archive)

Trump cut ties with Bannon on Wednesday, saying his former adviser had "lost his mind," in a blistering statement issued after comments attributed to Bannon in the book were made public.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders heaped scorn on Bannon and the book at her briefing on Thursday. She said Breitbart News should consider firing Bannon and attempted to cast doubt on Wolff's accuracy.

She called the book "some trash" that came from "an author that no one had ever heard of until today."

"This book is mistake after mistake after mistake," she said.

Bannon leashed and unleashed

Trump lawyers sent a cease-and-desist letter to Bannon on Wednesday asking him not to disclose any confidential information. They said Bannon had breached an agreement by communicating with Wolff about Trump, his family and the campaign and made "disparaging statements and in some cases outright defamatory statements" about them.

In the book, Bannon was quoted as describing a June 2016 meeting with a group of Russians at Trump Tower in New York as "treasonous" and "unpatriotic." The meeting, held after the Russians promised damaging information on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, was attended by Donald Trump Jr., Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort, Trump's campaign manager at the time.

Trump's statement also diminished Bannon's role in the election victory and accused him of leaking to the media. Before joining the campaign, Bannon headed the conservative Breitbart News website and proved to be a divisive figure in the White House. He returned to Breitbart after being fired, although he is reported to have continued to talk with Trump.

Changed his tune

Bannon's reaction to the book controversy has been muted. In interviews with Breitbart News after the news broke, he called Trump a "great man" and pledged continued support for the president's agenda.

The president took note. "He called me a great man last night so he obviously changed his tune pretty quick," Trump told reporters on Thursday. "I don't talk to him. That's a misnomer."

Bradley Moss, a Washington lawyer specializing in national security law, said any non-disclosure agreement would not apply to Bannon once he became a government employee. The government has far less power to limit speech by employees than private companies, Moss said.

A lawsuit could hurt Trump because Bannon's lawyers would be entitled to interview White House officials and collect potentially damaging documents from them in his defence, Moss said.

"I assume the cease-and-desist letter is aimed primarily at the public," added Michael Dorf, a professor at Cornell Law School. "The idea that he could block publication is absurd."

Ban on recording devices in the White House

On Thursday, the White House also said no personal devices, including cellphones, would be allowed in the White House West Wing beginning next week for security purposes. The moves followed the Bannon split but had been considered for some time, White House officials said.

Bannon helped Trump shape a populist, anti-establishment message and had been the president's link to his hard-line conservative base of support, which is often at odds with the Republican Party establishment.

The story that triggered the Trump-Bannon split was an offshoot of the investigation into whether Trump campaign aides colluded with Russia to sway the election to Trump, allegations Trump and Moscow deny.

Manafort and business associate Rick Gates, another campaign aide, pleaded not guilty in November to federal charges brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller including conspiracy to launder money. Manafort sued Mueller on Wednesday, alleging that his investigation exceeded its legal authority.

Lawsuit against book a 'nonstarter'

Any lawsuits by President Donald Trump against former chief strategist Steve Bannon or the author and publisher of a book depicting a chaotic White House and Trump as out of his depth would almost certainly fail and could lead to more damaging disclosures, legal experts said.

Alan Dershowitz, an emeritus law professor at Harvard Law School, said a libel lawsuit by Trump would be a "terrible mistake" and "a nonstarter" that "no reasonable lawyer would recommend."

Dershowitz, who has often publicly defended the legality of the president's actions over the past year, said it is very difficult for public figures to prevail in libel suits. Trump would need to show Wolff and publisher Holt knew statements by Bannon and others were false or they acted with reckless disregard for whether or not they were true.

First Amendment protection

Some lawyers said Bannon, Wolff and the publisher could all argue that many of the comments in the book were opinions, which are protected by the First Amendment and cannot be the basis of a libel action. Andrew Wright, a former associate counsel in the Obama White House and professor at Savannah Law School, said that would include Bannon's "treasonous" and "unpatriotic" quotes.

"I don’t think Bannon would have a hard time establishing that he meant it as an opinion that it was disloyal and improper rather than as a statement of law," said Wright.

In one letter to Bannon and another to both Wolff and Steve Rubin, President & Publisher, Henry Holt and Company, Harder also said Bannon violated non-disclosure and non-disparagement provisions of his employment agreement with the Trump 2016 election campaign by speaking with Wolff. He said Wolff and Holt could face claims of interfering with or inducing breach of that contract.

But legal experts said the employment agreement would not have applied to Bannon after he joined the White House staff. Because of transparency and free speech concerns, the government has far less power to limit non-classified speech by employees than private companies, said Bradley Moss, a Washington lawyer specializing in national security law.

Apart from facing long odds, a Trump libel lawsuit would also force the president to participate in an intrusive disclosure process.

Dershowitz said that defense lawyers would be able to subject Trump to "broad and far-ranging" depositions about "almost anything" and compel him to answer.

History of legal threats to muzzle criticism

Trump has a history of threatening lawsuits in his real estate business career and during his election campaign, though he has not always followed through. In the campaign, he threatened to sue the New York Times over its reporting that he made unwanted advances on two women.

Then-Republican candidate Trump was accused by 13 women who publicly said that in the past he had physically touched them inappropriately in some way. He said he would sue all of the women, calling them liars, but those lawsuits have not been filed.

Source: Reuters