The United States, from its founding, has given individuals the right to both freedom of speech and freedom of the press in order to provide a check on the government. Most countries can’t boast of such a legacy. To this day, France, Germany, England, and a slew of other countries can censor content that the government deems “hateful” or “harmful”. Russia didn’t prohibit censorship outright until 1993, but even now Putin’s government largely controls the flow of information in the country. The United States is the outlier, and one would think that the president, of all people, would do everything in his power to honor and protect this tradition.
But that’s not the president we have.
Last Thursday President Trump’s attorneys threatened legal action against Macmillan Books in an attempt to suppress the release of Michael Wolff’s, Fire and Fury, which chronicles the apparent chaos of the Trump White House.
The main issue that Trump and his lawyers have expressed with the book is that many of the claims “lack competent evidentiary support.”
Trump said in a tweet, “Michael Wolff is a total loser who made up stories in order to sell his really boring and untruthful book.”
Many top White House officials deny that they spoke the quotes attributed to them in Fire and Fury, and many assert that events Wolff describes never took place.
Trump denies that Wolff had access to the White House. But, of course, that’s not what Wolff says.
Therein lies the problem with this situation. It’s all a game of “he said, she said.” Wolff is going to stand by his book. It’s easy enough for him to argue that Trump and others deny the quotes and events referenced in the book because either they make the administration look bad or the staff are looking out for their jobs. Trump and his staff are going to deny, deny, deny.
In the meantime, though, Trump, with his threats of suing for libel, is giving the book more attention. With the increased demand for the book, Macmillan ignored the threats of Trump’s lawyer and moved up the release date of the book. People waited in freezing temperatures on the morning of Fire and Fury’s release, and, within hours, it was sold out at bookstores across the country. The book is still at number one on Amazon’s best seller list.
Trump’s attempts at pre-publication censorship of Fire and Fury were obviously futile.
What’s worrisome, though, is the fact that the President thought that fighting the publication of this book was a good idea in the first place. It reveals Trump’s true lack of understanding of the Constitution and where his powers lie.
It’s true that Trump has threatened to sue numerous people and outlets that have reviewed him negatively in the past and has never followed through. So, one might ask, what’s the big deal this time?
What matters here is not whether Trump’s bid to censor Fire and Fury was successful or not. What matters is that he, a president who ran on the ticket of the conservative Republican Party, thinks that it is an acceptable course of action to ignore the Constitution and prevent the public from gaining greater knowledge about those who govern over them.
Whether Wolff’s claims are true or false should be the public’s responsibility to decide, not that of the government or Trump. The President has been scrutinized often for his authoritarian tendencies, and, until this point, those jabs always seem slightly overblown. However, when a president starts making moves to deny his citizens of their individual and constitutionally protected rights, one begins to think that the critics might have a point.
Photography by Gage Skidmore.