Censorship stupidity: Trump tries to keep the Wolff from his door

How fitting that Trump's attempt to block the release of a devastating book roughly parallels Richard Nixon's attempt to block the release of the Pentagon Papers.

The New York Times published a series of articles based on the secret Pentagon papers in 1971.

The New York Times resumed publication of its series of articles based on the secret Pentagon papers in its July 1, 1971, edition after the U.S. Supreme Court gave the green light. (AP Photo/Jim Wells) A detail of the cover of Michael Wolff's book "Fire and Fury" is shown. (Henry Holt)

How fitting it is that Trump’s tinpot totalitarian attempt to block the release of a devastating book roughly parallels Richard Nixon’s attempt to block the release of the Pentagon Papers. Two malignantly unhinged presidents, two frontal assaults on the pillars of the First Amendment.

Purely by chance yesterday, I was watching Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” while the details of Trump’s desperate bid flooded the news cycle. Inside the theater, a Nixon lawyer was telling the newspaper, “I respectfully request that you publish nothing further of this nature.” Outside the theater, a Trump lawyer was telling the publisher of Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” much the same thing: “Mr. Trump hereby demands that you immediately cease & desist from any further publication, release, or dissemination of the Book.”

Trump doesn’t do irony very well, so it’s surely lost on him that by seeking to block a book that depicts his ignorance and autocratic impulses, he is confirming the book’s depiction of his ignorance and autocratic impulses.

You also have to wonder whether his lawyer — a Beverly Hills hired hand who has represented Fox News perv Roger Ailes (natch) and Hollywood perv Harvey Weinstein (natch) — is simply clueless about the outcome of the Pentagon Papers case. By a 6-3 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Nixon’s censorship bid (an attempted “prior restraint”), and it’s a slam dunk that if a president can’t halt publication of top-secret documents about a disastrous war, a president certainly can’t halt publication of a book that merely charts a disastrous White House tenure.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

As the veteran First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams pointed out yesterday, “It is unthinkably difficult to imagine a president suppressing publication of a book criticizing him.” In the courts, he said, journalistic efforts to hold a president accountable typically receive “the highest levels of First Amendment protection.” And as two lawyers from a prominent global law firm point out today, “The Supreme Court has never upheld such a prior restraint, and neither it nor any other court is going to do so to halt publication of ‘Fire and Fury.’ ”

But here’s the bottom line: James Gleick, president of the Authors Guild, a book industry group, said late yesterday, “This isn’t a country where we quash books that the leader finds unpleasant. That’s what tyrants do, not American presidents.”

Tyrants do it, yes, and Trump has those requisite impulses. But this poseur has long weaponized lawsuits, filing them and threatening them, often for purely psychological reasons, because his eggshell ego can’t abide criticism. As the conservative commentator Stephen Hayes rightly notes, “Trump frequently threatens to sue those who frustrate him — the New York Times (for publishing the accounts of women who’d accused him of sexual impropriety), the women themselves (for “lying”), the makers of an anti-Trump ad on veterans (for saying he didn’t love the veterans when he really did love the veterans), Ted Cruz (over his citizenship), the Club for Growth (for ads in Iowa he didn’t like).”

Now he wants to ban a book.

Hayes, who supports the plutocratic Republican tax law and Trump’s conservative judicial nominees, nevertheless writes: “This isn’t normal. And it’s not just ‘Trump being Trump,’ the preferred dodge of elected Republicans. It’s a reflection of the president’s troubled mind and of his erratic, irrational judgment … This is something more than abnormal; it’s dangerous.”

The only saving grace is Trump’s stupidity. This guy is supposed to be a PR genius, a manipulator of buzz. But all he’s done, by “hereby” demanding the book’s suppression, is to shower it with free publicity. The publishing house, Henry Holt, responded to the Trump lawyer’s letter by moving up the release date. The book was slated to hit the stores next Tuesday; instead it went on sale this morning. It soared to #1 on Amazon, and in Washington last night a bookstore stayed open until 1 a.m. in order to start selling the book at midnight. Dozens of people awaited the moment by lining up in the subzero cold.

And if Michael Wolff’s book is supposedly “phony” (Trump’s word), and “fake news” (Trump’s deputy propaganda minister), why try to suppress it? A sane president would simply ignore it and move on. An unhinged president, someone with no feel for the First Amendment, instead tries to suppress it — thereby giving it credibility, and prompting many Americans to wonder, “What’s in there that he’s afraid of?”

Perhaps it’s the suggestion that Trump may have committed obstruction of justice during the Russia probe. According to Wolff, Trump’s lawyers believed that some of the president’s behavior was “an explicit attempt to throw sand into the investigation’s gears.” The point is, we as free Americans get to read these passages and decide for ourselves. Who knows, maybe a few of the ostrich Republicans will wake up to the evidence that’s staring them in the face.

As Justice Hugo Black wrote nearly 47 years ago in the Pentagon Papers case, “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 press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.”

Truer today more than ever.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal