President Trump’s attempt to stop publication of Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff, a book critical of his presidency, brought the wrath of a number of groups concerned it might chill free speech. Ultimately, the president’s unsuccessful attempt to censor did more to spur sales of the book than hinder them.
On Thursday, January 4, Charles Harder, a lawyer for President Trump, sent a letter to Henry Holt & Co. and author Michael Wolff on behalf of the president demanding that publisher and author immediately “cease and desist from any further publication, release or dissemination” of a forthcoming book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, according ABC News, which published the letter.
In the letter, Harder wrote: “We are investigating numerous false and/or baseless statements that you have made about Mr. Trump.” Harder then said he is looking into possible defamation of Trump and his family and invasion of privacy, ABC News reported. The lawyer also accused the author of actual malice, defined as reckless disregard for the truth.
The book had been scheduled to be released by Holt on January 9 but the publisher announced on Thursday, January 4, that it would release the book the next day.
In the latest salvo of this conflict, Elizabeth A. McNamara, a lawyer representing Wolff and Henry Holt, issued a letter to Harder, as reported by the New York Times. In the letter, she wrote: “Though your letter provides a basic summary of New York libel law, tellingly, it stops short of identifying a single statement in the book that is factually false or defamatory. Instead, the letter appears to be designed to silence legitimate criticism. This is the antithesis of an actionable libel claim.”
McNamara told the Times that “my clients do not intend to cease publication, no such retraction will occur, and no apology is warranted.”
In response to Trump’s legal team’s unprecedented cease-and-desist demand, Macmillan CEO John Sargent sent a memorandum to all Macmillan employees vehemently defending the First Amendment to the Constitution.
Calling the cease-and-desist order “flagrantly unconstitutional,” Sargent wrote: “Both the history and language of the First Amendment support the view that the press must be left free to publish news, whatever the source, without censorship, injunctions, or prior restraints. In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government.”
Sargent continued that there is no ambiguity in the First Amendment. “This is an underlying principle of our democracy. We cannot stand silent. We will not allow any president to achieve by intimidation what our Constitution precludes him or her from achieving in court. We need to respond strongly for Michael Wolff and his book, but also for all authors and all their books, now and in the future. And as citizens we must demand that President Trump understand and abide by the First Amendment of our Constitution.”
Free speech and book industry groups also condemned Trump’s attack on the freedom to read.
ABA CEO Oren Teicher issued the following statement on behalf of ABA and its membership:
“For a sitting president to threaten legal action in an attempt to stop publication of a book is an appalling abuse of executive power. We believe this sort of attempted prior restraint sets a dangerous precedent, and, if successful, would represent a chilling effect on free speech. Not only would it would deter authors and publishers from publishing future books about this president (and any future sitting president), it would also directly undercut our nation’s cultural and political legacy of a vigorous exchange and debate of ideas, the hallmark of a healthy democracy.
“ABA staunchly defends the freedom of publishers to publish and sell the titles they deem appropriate, whether it is a book from a controversial author, or whether it is about a sitting president. The First Amendment exists to protect readers from exactly this kind of over-reach.”
Teicher added that ABA applauds Holt’s decision to publish the book early in the face of Trump’s threats.
The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) also criticized the President. “The American people have a First Amendment right to read Fire and Fury and other works that contribute to an important public debate, even when they contain statements critical of the president. It is up to the courts to determine if the statements are libelous after they are published,” said Chris Finan, executive director, NCAC. “The letter is clearly intended to intimidate Wolff and Henry Holt into withholding information that is embarrassing to the president and his family.”
The Authors Guild also denounced Trump’s efforts. “This isn’t a country where we quash books that the leader finds unpleasant,” said Authors Guild President James Gleick. “That’s what tyrants do, not American presidents.”
Trump not only failed to stop publication of the book, his efforts to censor the book and the media outcry that followed have created a fervor at bookstores such as Politics and Prose, as reported by the Washingtonian. Politics and Prose co-owner Bradley Graham reported that the store sold all of its copies quickly and said that in the six-plus years that he’s co-owned the store, he’d never seen a “mad rush like this, not in my time. Of course, you’ve had other books in great demand. You’d have to go back to a J.K. Rowling or a Bob Woodward release for comparison.”
Meanwhile, another D.C. store, Kramerbooks, sold out of Fire and Fury in about 20 minutes, as reported by The Hill. Photos and video of the DuPont Circle bookstore showed a packed house as people waited in line to get a copy of the bombshell book, the article noted.
And KSHB Kansas City reported that stores nationwide and in Kansas City are sold out of the books and are waiting for new orders to arrive. Rainy Day Books owner Vivien Jennings told KSHB that she is asking customers to be patient. A new order had been scheduled to arrive at the store on Tuesday, January 9. “I’m getting calls daily of people ordering a copy on our website and asking me to hold a copy of the books that will arrive on Tuesday,” Jennings told KSHB. “I think people are interested in reading the book for themselves and deciding for themselves what it said instead of just hearing media reports on it.” She added that demand is so great, she doesn’t even have a copy yet.
The audiobook of Fire and Fury is now available for booksellers to sell via Libro.fm. As an ABA affinity partner, Libro.fm enables independent stores to sell digital audiobooks through a co-branded experience. Learn more about the Indie Partner Program here.
In addition, as part of Libro.fm’s Audiobook Listening Copy (ALC) program, any bookseller currently working in an ABA member store can access the advance listener copy of Fire and Fury, which is now the featured ALC for the month of January.
Booksellers must log in to redeem their complimentary ALCs. Booksellers without a Libro.fm account can create one and e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org (including the e-mail address used to create the account and the bookstore’s name) to be added to the ALC program.