BETTER DAYS: US President Donald Trump talks to chief strategist Steve Bannon during a swearing-in ceremony for senior staff at the White House on January 22 2017. Picture: REUTERS
BETTER DAYS: US President Donald Trump talks to chief strategist Steve Bannon during a swearing-in ceremony for senior staff at the White House on January 22 2017. Picture: REUTERS

New York — Any lawsuits by President Donald Trump against former chief strategist Steve Bannon or the author and publisher of a book depicting a chaotic White House and Trump as out of his depth, would almost certainly fail and could lead to more damaging disclosures, legal experts say.

Trump threatened legal action against Bannon over "libelous" remarks quoted by writer Michael Wolff in the book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, after excerpts were published by media outlets on Wednesday.

Charles Harder, a lawyer for the president, told Reuters he would take "legal action" to block the book’s release.

He sent cease-and-desist letters to Bannon, Wolff and publisher Henry Holt & Co.

Alan Dershowitz, an emeritus law professor at Harvard Law School, said a libel lawsuit by Trump would be a "terrible mistake" and "a nonstarter" that "no reasonable lawyer would recommend".

Dershowitz, who has often publicly defended the legality of the president’s actions over the past year, said it was very difficult for public figures to prevail in libel suits.

Trump would need to show that Wolff and publisher Holt knew statements by Bannon and others were false, or that they had acted with reckless disregard for whether or not they were true.

In the book, Bannon was quoted describing as "treasonous" and "unpatriotic" a June 2016 Trump Tower meeting that Donald Trump Jr and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, held with a group of Russians who had promised damaging information about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

Bannon has not responded to requests for comment. Trump Jr and Kushner have not commented on the quotes.

Elsewhere in the book, Wolff in his own voice describes Trump as "no more than semi-literate" in terms of his reading habits and being known among his social circle for having a "wide-ranging ignorance".

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders described the book as "some trash" filled with "mistake after mistake".

The publisher defended the book.

"We see Fire and Fury as an extraordinary contribution to our national discourse, and are proceeding with the publication of the book," Holt said.

The publisher moved the book’s release forward to January 5 from the original publication date of January 9.

Opinions protected

Some lawyers said Bannon, Wolff and the publisher could all argue that many of the comments in the book were opinions, which are protected by the First Amendment and cannot be the basis of a libel action.

Andrew Wright, a former associate counsel in the Obama White House and professor at Savannah Law School, said that would include Bannon’s "treasonous" and "unpatriotic" quotes.

"I don’t think Bannon would have a hard time establishing that he meant it as an opinion that it was disloyal and improper rather than as a statement of law," said Wright.

In one letter to Bannon and another to both Wolff and Steve Rubin, the president and publisher at Henry Holt & Co, Harder also said Bannon had violated nondisclosure and non-disparagement provisions of his employment agreement with the Trump 2016 election campaign by speaking to Wolff.

He said Wolff and Holt could face claims of interfering with or inducing breach of that contract.

But legal experts said the employment agreement would not have applied to Bannon after he joined the White House staff.

Because of transparency and free speech concerns, the government has far less power that private companies have to limit nonclassified speech by employees, said Bradley Moss, a Washington lawyer specialising in national security law.

Apart from facing long odds, a Trump libel lawsuit would also force the president to participate in an intrusive disclosure process.

Dershowitz said defence lawyers would be able to subject Trump to "broad and far-ranging" depositions about "almost anything" and compel him to answer.

Moss said defence lawyers would also be entitled to interview White House officials and collect potentially damaging documents from them.

"It would be one more distraction, one more thing people in the administration need to hire lawyers for."

Trump has a history of threatening lawsuits in his real estate business career and during his election campaign, though he has not always followed through.

During the campaign, he threatened to sue the New York Times over its reporting that he made unwanted advances on two women.

When he was still a presidential candidate, Trump was accused by 13 women who publicly said that in the past he had physically touched them inappropriately in some way.

He said he would sue all of the women, calling them liars, but those lawsuits have not been filed.

Reuters