WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump has threatened his former chief strategist Steve Bannon with legal action over “defamatory” statements in a new book about a meeting Trump’s son and son-in-law held with Russians during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.
Charles Harder, Trump’s personal lawyer, said on Thursday he also will seek to block Tuesday’s scheduled publication of the book, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” by author Michael Wolff, which offers a lacerating portrait of an accidental presidency and a dysfunctional White House.
Harder told Reuters that “legal action is imminent” regarding Bannon.
Trump cut ties with Bannon on Wednesday, saying his former adviser had “lost his mind” in a blistering statement issued after comments attributed to Bannon in the book were made public.
Lawyers for the president sent a cease-and-desist letter to Bannon on Wednesday asking him not to disclose any confidential information. They said in the letter, seen by Reuters, that Bannon had breached an agreement by communicating with Wolff about Trump, his family and the campaign and made “disparaging statements and in some cases outright defamatory statements” about Trump and his family.
Trump’s lawyers told Wolff and book publisher Henry Holt and Company they were pursuing possible claims including libel, according to a legal notice Harder provided to Reuters on Thursday.
In the book, Bannon was quoted as describing a June 2016 meeting with a group of Russians at Trump Tower in New York as “treasonous” and “unpatriotic.” The meeting, held after the Russians promised damaging information on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, was attended by Donald Trump Jr., Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort, who was Trump’s campaign manager at the time.
On Thursday, the White House also said no personal devices, including cellphones, would be allowed in the West Wing beginning next week for security purposes. The moves followed the Bannon split but had been considered for some time.
Trump had relied heavily on Bannon, chairman of the right-wing Breitbart News website, for advice in the months leading up to his upset victory in the November 2016 election. He then gave Bannon a strategic role in the White House, where he became a divisive figure before being fired in August. Bannon returned to Breitbart and continued to talk with Trump.
Trump’s statement also diminished Bannon’s role in the election victory and accused him of leaking to the media.
On Thursday, Bannon told a caller on Breitbart News radio that “nothing will ever come between us and President Trump and his agenda,” according to CNN.
Bradley Moss, a Washington lawyer specializing in national security and security clearance law, said any non-disclosure agreement would not apply to Bannon once he became a government employee. Because of concerns over transparency and free speech, the government has far less power to limit speech by employees than private companies, Moss said.
A lawsuit also would likely be harmful to the White House because Bannon’s lawyers would be entitled to interview White House officials and collect potentially damaging documents from them in his defense. “It would be one more distraction, one more thing people in the administration need to hire lawyers for,” Moss said.
“I assume the cease-and-desist letter is aimed primarily at the public,” added Michael Dorf, a professor at Cornell Law School.
“The idea that he could block publication is absurd,” Dorf added.
TRUMP‘S LINK TO BASE
Bannon helped Trump shape a populist, anti-establishment message and had been the president’s link to his hard-line conservative base of support. It was not clear if the split would push Bannon to be even more aggressive in his ongoing campaign against the Republican Party establishment, whether he would now target Trump or would emerge much weaker.
The story that triggered the Trump-Bannon split was an offshoot of the investigation into whether Trump campaign aides colluded with Russia to sway the election to Trump, allegations Trump and Moscow deny.
According to the book, Bannon expressed derision about the June 2016 meeting in which a Russian lawyer offered damaging information about Clinton. Bannon also was quoted as saying he was sure Trump Jr. would have taken the Russians to meet his father in Trump Tower.
In the book, Bannon also said he believed the investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow will focus on money laundering.
Special counsel Robert Mueller, named by the Justice Department in May 2017 to lead the Russia investigation, has asked White House officials to preserve records of the Trump Tower meeting, according to a source with knowledge of the request.
Manafort and business associate Rick Gates, another campaign aide, pleaded not guilty in November to federal charges brought by Mueller including conspiracy to launder money. Manafort sued Mueller on Wednesday, alleging that his investigation exceeds its legal authority.
Reporting by Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Jan Wolfe in New York; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Bill Trott and Will Dunham