Cease and desist letter comes after claim in new book by Michael Wolff that former chief strategist called Trump Jr’s meeting with Russians ‘treasonous’.
Donald Trump’s lawyers threatened legal action on Wednesday night against his former right-hand man Steve Bannon, marking a fresh escalation after a day of turmoil that left the White House reeling.
A cease and desist letter accuses Bannon of violating a non-disclosure agreement by speaking about his time on Trump’s election campaign to Michael Wolff, whose new book has caused shockwaves in Washington.
Trump’s hopes of turning the page on a chaotic 2017 were dashed by extracts from Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Wolff, first made public by the Guardian. It triggered an ugly and unprecedented war of words between Trump and Bannon.
Charles Harder, the president’s lawyer, told ABC News that Bannon’s communications with Wolff “give rise to numerous legal claims including defamation by libel and slander, and breach of his written confidentiality and non-disparagement agreement with our clients. Legal action is imminent.”
Harder’s letter to Bannon warned: “You have breached the agreement by, among other things, communicating with author Michael Wolff about Mr Trump, his family members, and the company, disclosing confidential information to Mr Wolff, and making disparaging statements and in some cases outright defamatory statements to Mr Wolff about Mr Trump, his family members, and the company.”
The damning portrait of White House infighting and presidential incompetence dominated cable television news all day as well as the daily White House press briefing. Wolff’s book soared from 48,449th on Amazon’s bestselling books list to number one. Veteran political observers said they could not remember a falling-out so public or rancorous as that between Trump and Bannon.
The former chief strategist appears to have crossed a line by criticising Trump’s family: according to the book, he described Donald Trump Jr’s conduct in accepting a meeting with Russians during the election campaign as “treasonous”, and referred to Ivanka Trump as “dumb as a brick”. Trump Jr has in the past repeatedly denied wrongdoing in attending the meeting at Trump Tower.
“Aides thought they had more time to prepare for the book’s formal release,” the Washington Post reported on Wednesday night. “Trump spent much of the day raging about the book to top aides, officials and advisers said … As he fumed, some aides were still frantically searching for a copy of the book, and even senior aides like [Hope] Hicks had not seen it by the afternoon, officials said.”
Press secretary Sarah Sanders described the president’s reaction to the book: “I think furious, disgusted, would probably certainly fit when you make such outrageous claims and completely false claims against the president, his administration, and his family.”
In characteristic fashion the president hit back – but while he usually targets his foes through Twitter, Bannon earned the dubious honour of a vituperative 266-word statement. Trump insisted the former campaign chief executive and White House chief strategist had little to do with his victorious campaign and “has nothing to do with me or my presidency”, adding: “When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind.”
Bannon hosted Breitbart News Tonight on Sirius XM radio as usual on Wednesday night, CNN reported, and made little reference to the acrimony. But when a caller brought up the issue, Bannon replied: “The president of the United States is a great man. You know I support him day in and day out.”
The furious controversy consumed time and energy in the west wing just as Trump prepared for a weekend retreat at Camp David with Paul Ryan, the House speaker, and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell to discuss Republicans’ plans for 2018. The stakes could not be higher with the president’s approval rating at rock bottom and mid-term elections looming in November.
Now executive chairman of the conservative Breitbart News website, Bannon is known to be planning to throw his weight behind several candidates that share his hardline nationalist agenda.
On Wednesday, Trump Jr highlighted reader responses on Breitbart that were supportive of the president, tweeting: “Wow, just looked at the comments section on Breitbart. Wow. When Bannon has lost Breitbart, he’s left with … umm, nothing.”
But Bannon could yet use Breitbart to hold Trump’s feet to the fire on issues such as immigration control, building a wall on the Mexican border and waging a trade war with China.
Joshua Green, author of Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency, said: “I don’t think Bannon is going anywhere … He speaks for a wing of the Republican party that is real and powerful. He reflects and amplifies a sentiment among grassroots Republican supporters on issues such as trade and immigration that is very real.”
Dan Cassino, associate professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey, did not rule out a possible reconciliation: “Trump has a history of making nice afterwards. We have to reevaluate after a week.”
The firestorm created by Wolff’s book burned long into Wednesday night. The author paints a vivid picture of a dysfunctional White House led by a president who did not actually want to win the election. The shock of victory left Melania Trump in tears, Wolff writes.
Stephanie Grisham, communications director for the first lady, rejected the claim.
In another extraordinary section, Wolff writes: “Trump liked to say that one of the things that made life worth living was getting your friends’ wives into bed.” To that end, the book claims, Trump would invite the friend to his office and engage in “more or less constant sexual banter”.
The book goes on to say that, with the friend’s wife on speakerphone, listening to the conversation, Trump would allegedly ask the friend: “‘Do you still like having sex with your wife? How often? You must have had a better fuck than your wife? Tell me about it. I have girls coming in from Los Angeles at three o’clock. We can go upstairs and have a great time.”
Wolff said in an author’s note that the book was based on more than 200 interviews, including multiple conversations with the president and senior staff. But Sanders claimed that Wolff “never actually sat down with the president” and had spoken with him just once, briefly, since Trump had taken office. She dismissed the book as “trashy tabloid fiction”.