It says a lot about the expectations created during the presidency of Donald Trump that when the president’s agents took an action reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s infamous efforts to suppress the Pentagon Papers, it was mostly treated as a minor subplot in Trump’s struggle to punish his former chief strategist, Stephen Bannon.
But the cease-and-desist letter sent by Trump’s lawyer Charles Harder to Michael Wolff and to the publisher of Wolff’s soon-t0-be-released book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House pretty clearly represents the same kind of attempted “prior restraint” of constitutionally protected speech that the Supreme Court condemned in the Pentagon Papers case and that American jurists have perpetually frowned upon.
Yes, technically Trump was issuing threats as a private individual, and claimed the book was clearly libelous (despite the incredibly high standards the courts have traditionally maintained for claims of libel against public officials). But when the most powerful man in the world threatens a writer and a publisher, these are flimsy pretexts for what is at best an act of intimidation, and at worst a notice to the world at large aimed at chilling the free expression of opinions contrary to the whims and interests of the Leader.
First Amendment champions PEN America certainly had no doubt about the menacing nature of Trump’s threats:
The President’s attempt to halt publication of a book because of its content is flagrantly unconstitutional. President Trump’s threats represent a brazen attempt at imposing unlawful prior restraint, a form of censorship repeatedly rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court. For the President of the United States criticism comes with the territory. The President should immediately withdraw and repudiate this outrageous demand, allowing the American people to render their own judgement of the book.
The White House’s defense of Trump’s actions indicate a less-than-robust understanding of how the Constitution works:
“The President absolutely believes in the First Amendment. But as we’ve said before, the President also believes in making sure that information is accurate before pushing it out as fact when it certainly and clearly is not,” [Sarah Huckabee] Sanders said when asked about the legal threats and whether Trump believes in the First Amendment.
The First Amendment is not some sort of guideline or advisory that the government observes when it thinks “information” that is being “pushed out as fact” is accurate; it’s a guarantee of freedom of expression in all but the rarest cases, particularly when it is arguably disseminating information vital to the understanding of the nature and conduct of public officials. And prior restraint of such expressions is almost unheard of in free societies. Banning books and burning books are essentially the same thing. For a president already guilty of chronic threats to freedom of the press, this course of action is a very bad sign that confirms some of the terrible suspicions about the president’s character that Wolff’s book presents.