WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump vowed to “take a strong look” at libel laws in the wake of the release of Michael Wolff’s book, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” which he has attacked as “boring and untruthful.”
“We are going to take a strong look at our country’s libel laws so that when somebody says something that is false and defamatory about a person, that person will have meaningful recourse in our courts,” Trump, reading from a piece of paper, told reporters on Wednesday. “If someone says something that is totally false and knowingly false, that the person who has been abused, defamed, libeled, will have meaningful recourse.”
Trump’s attorney, Charles Harder, sent a cease and desist letter to Wolff and his publisher, Henry Holt & Co., threatening legal action if they moved forward with the publication of the book. They did.
Attorneys for the publisher pushed back on the legal threat, writing to Harder that his letter “stops short of identifying a single statement in the book that is factually false or defamatory.” They defended the accuracy of the book.
But Trump, without referring to “Fire and Fury,” called the current libel laws “a sham and disgrace and do not represent American values or American fairness, so we are going to take a strong look at that. We want fairness — can’t say things that are false, knowingly false, and be able to smile as money pours into your bank account.”
“Fire and Fury” has zoomed to the top of bestseller lists. He told The New Yorker that the book has sold 1 million copies in four days — although it appears that he was referring to orders for the title.
It’s unclear what Trump could do to change libel law, which are at the state level and governed by Supreme Court precedent. Trump sued author Tim O’Brien in 2007 over his book “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald,” but the lawsuit was dismissed.
In the final weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump also threatened to sue women who accused him of misconduct, as well as the New York Times, but he never followed through on those threats, either.
As a public figure, he would have a high threshold to prove a libel claim. His attorneys would have to show that Wolff and the publisher acted with actual malice — they had a reckless disregard for the truth or knew the information was false, but published it anyway. Moreover, the book’s characterization of Trump’s fitness for office could conceivably be argued as a statement of opinion, which is protected by the First Amendment.
Trump would also face months, if not years, of depositions and even a public trial in which the claims of the book would be at the heart of litigation.
Trump also threatened to “open up” libel laws during the 2016 campaign.