Hutcherson Law – Fire and Fury: Can Trump Successfully Sue?
There is little doubt that thus far the most controversial book of 2018 is Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, a scathing portrayal of President Trump and his first year in the Oval Office. Prior to its release, President Trump threatened legal action to block publication and sent a cease and desist letter to both Wolff and his publisher, claiming that the book defamed the President as well as members of his family. The cease and desist letter also requested a retraction and apology to Mr. Trump. In response, Wolff’s publisher, Henry Holt & Co., moved up the release date.
Although the cease and desist letter did not specify which statements are false, Wolff has admitted to slight inaccuracies and noted that it is the reader’s responsibility to decide the veracity of the statements, adding fuel to the media frenzy. One notable inaccuracy is the “mix-up” between Mark Berman and Mike Berman. In Fire and Fury, Wolff wrote that Ivanka Trump hobnobbed at the Four Seasons for breakfast with Washington’s politi-crati including the Washington Post’s Mark Berman. On January 5, 2018, the Mark Berman of the Washington Post publicly acknowledged on Twitter that he had never even been to the Four Seasons and had certainly never had breakfast there. Wolff confused Mark Berman of the Washington Post with Mike Berman, a long-time lobbyist and founder of the Duberstein Group, a government affairs consulting firm. However, this small inaccuracy begs the question – if Wolff got the small stuff wrong, did he get the big things wrong as well? While Wolff’s tell-all could plausibly be true, the reader has no way of discerning fact from fiction.
These inaccuracies, both the big and small, may mean that President Trump has a defamation case against Wolff. To succeed on a defamation claim, President Trump, as a public official, must prove that Wolff made false assertions of fact about him, with actual malice, for which Trump suffered damages. Actual malice is a heightened degree of fault, that means that the individual had knowledge of the falsity or acted with a reckless disregard as to the falsity of the statement. The rationale behind this legal principle is that a public official or public figure has a unique ability to counter defamatory statements by using their public platform. President Trump has perhaps the most distinct ability to set the record straight – he has a whole department of professionals who interact with the media every day.
Here, since Wolff has admitted to falsehoods, the President may be able to successfully claim that Wolff acted with knowledge of the falsity of the statements or with reckless disregard as to the falsity of the statements. Wolff has yet to comment on the possibility of a defamation lawsuit, although he has repeatedly stated that he is “wholly comfortable” with his sources, indicating that he trusts the veracity of his sources and did not act with knowledge or reckless disregard as to the falsity of the statements. A lawsuit by President Trump against Wolff would therefore face an uphill battle.
As a result of Fire and Fury, President Trump has vowed to “take a strong look” at this country’s libel laws to ensure that victims of defamation have meaningful recourse in court. For those who are the victims of defamatory falsehoods, Hutcherson Law understands how to navigate this country’s libel and slander laws. If someone has spread falsehoods about you, contact Hutcherson Law today!