Trump Is Obsessing Over the Wrong Guy
I’m going to step out of character and offer Donald J. Trump, the 45th president of the United States, some frank, if unsolicited, advice instead of my usual criticism.
Mr. President, let the publication of “Fire and Fury,” journalist Michael Wolff’s scathing portrait of life inside your administration, pass. Refocus your attention on the Mueller investigation. It threatens your presidency in a way that Wolff never will.
If you want to bring the investigation to a close—as you repeatedly have said—renew the pledge you made last June in a Rose Garden news conference that you are “100 percent” willing to testify under oath about everything you know and everything you’ve done. The investigation is going to wind up with you in the witness box anyway. You might as well take the stand sooner rather than later—for your sake and the good of the country. Let’s get this over with.
Now, I don’t think for a minute that the president will heed my counsel or any similar suggestions that might come in the near term from more familiar sources. At the moment, Trump is seething about Wolff. He’s so hopping mad and fixated that he sought to stop the publication of “Fire and Fury,” authorizing one of his personal lawyers to send the author and his publisher, Henry Holt and Co. Inc., a cease-and-desist letter before the book’s Jan. 9 scheduled release date. The letter also threatened a libel action if the publisher didn’t relent.
Undeterred, Henry Holt and Co. responded by accelerating the book’s publication to Jan. 5. Since then, sales have skyrocketed. Currently, “Fire and Fury” ranks No. 1 on the Amazon.com top 100 chart. The book also has been the subject of nonstop breathless discussion on cable news.
But as bad as the fallout from the book has been, I would tell the president to let the news cycle run its course. Americans have short attention spans, and in due time, Wolff will become yesterday’s story.
I would tell the president that the law is decidedly against him in his attack on Wolff and Henry Holt. The Supreme Court has long interpreted the First Amendment to disfavor prior restraints on the press. I would remind the president of Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers case that ended so badly for Richard Nixon.
I also would remind the president of the important protections the Constitution affords journalists in defamation actions brought by public figures, among whom Trump is the absolute archetype. Even with topnotch attorneys working for him—and
contrary to what you might hear on MSNBC, some of Trump’s lawyers are excellent litigators—it is unlikely he will achieve his long-stated goal of “opening up” the nation’s libel laws. Why waste time and precious legal resources on a losing battle that in any event doesn’t have to be waged?
On the other hand, Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller, unlike Wolff, has to be dealt with. Mueller already has indicted two top Trump campaign aides—Paul Manafort and Rick Gates—on charges of money laundering, failing to register as foreign agents, conspiracy against the United States and other serious federal felonies stemming from their work on behalf of the former pro-Russia government of Ukraine. In addition, he’s secured a guilty plea from Trump’s first national security chief, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, for lying to the FBI about his post-election contacts with Russia’s then-Ambassador Sergey Kislyak concerning the lifting of U.S. sanctions. Former foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos also has pleaded guilty to lying about his attempts during the campaign to obtain dirt on Hillary Clinton from Russian sources.
As I have written before, no one seriously believes that Mueller is finished. Both Donald Trump Jr. and the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, are vulnerable for various acts and omissions that fall within Mueller’s broad mandate to investigate “any links and/or coordination between Donald Trump’s election campaign and Russia, and any matters that may arise directly from the investigation.”
The president is personally in jeopardy for possible obstruction of justice. That, in my view, is what Mueller will eventually subpoena Trump to address under penalty of perjury, either in a deposition or before a grand jury, or by means of written interrogatories, or some combination of the three. Why, then, shouldn’t the president take the proactive step of asking to state his side of the story under oath instead of waiting for Mueller to pounce?