As you may have heard by now, journalist Michael Wolf’s “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” has caused quite a stir. The president was not too pleased with the work, and lawyers for Trump and the book’s publisher traded some entertaining letters over it. (And, of course, Trump tweeted.)
As they have so often done throughout his business and political career, Trump’s lawyers threatened the author and publisher with a defamation lawsuit. What Trump has not-so-often done, however, is follow through on those threats. If he did this time, what legal issues might be in play?
1. Is It Worth Suing for Defamation to Protect Your Reputation?
Just because you can do something, doesn’t always mean you should. Defamation lawsuits rest on whether the statements involved are true or not, and the damage done to the person’s reputation. Therefore, litigation based on libel or slander can get particularly messy. Plus, President Trump is a public figure, making the bar for defamation much higher. Dragging the accusations made in the book into court could give them even more notoriety, and expose some other troublesome truths as well.
2. When Does Gossip Cross the Legal Line?
Much of Wolf’s book is based on conversations with past and present White House staffers, including former chief strategist Steve Bannon. And while that scuttlebutt may have been perfectly legal in private conversation, it gets a little dicier once it’s published. Again, a published statement is fine so long as it’s true, but if any of the book’s sources were lying, that could be the basis of a libel lawsuit.
3. What Is Defamation and Do Tweets Count?
This could be particularly salient for the Twitterer-in-Chief, who immediately lashed out on the platform:
I authorized Zero access to White House (actually turned him 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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 5, 2018
Trump’s own Twitter comments, if untrue, could qualify as defamation. As we saw in Bill Cosby’s case, denials that attack accusers can result in defamation lawsuits. So if the president doth protest too much, he could get into more legal trouble than he bargained for.
- Find Defamation Lawyers Near You (FindLaw’s Lawyer Directory)
- Trump Vows ‘to Take a Strong Look’ at Libel Laws in Wake of ‘Fire and Fury’ Release (Variety)
- Is the President Immune From Defamation Lawsuits? (FindLaw’s Injured)
- Top 5 Defamation FAQ (FindLaw’s Injured)