Macmillan’s John Sargent on Trump ‘Fire and Fury’ Cease-and-Desist: ‘Flagrantly Unconstitutional’

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

‘We cannot stand silent,’ says John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan, parent to ‘Fire and Fury’ publisher Henry Holt. In his staff memo, Sargent calls out Donald Trump’s ‘clear effort…to intimidate a publisher.’

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘Prior Restraint’

In a memo released to employees today (January 8), Macmillan CEO John Sargent has articulated the Big Five publisher’s response to the cease-and-desist letter sent to Henry Holt & Company late last week by Donald J. Trump’s personal attorneys about the book Fire and Fury.

Citing freedom to publish, the First Amendment, and previous legal cases, Sargent writes, “We will not allow any president to achieve by intimidation what our Constitution precludes him or her from achieving in court.”

As Publishing Perspectives reported, the demand from the president was that journalist Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House not be published. The book originally was scheduled for a January 9 publication. The response of the publisher was to take it more quickly to market, releasing the book on Friday, January 5.

“A demand to cease and desist publication—a clear effort by the President of the United States to intimidate a publisher into halting publication of an important book on the workings of the government—is an attempt to achieve what is called prior restraint.”John Sargent

The book’s depiction of a White House in deep disarray, along with interview appearances by Wolff, have dominated the weekend news cycle, leading The New York Times‘ Michael Barbaro to title ‘The Daily’ podcastFire and Fury in the White House.”

Now, in his memo—which includes a note that Trump will receive Macmillan’s legal response later today (January 8), Sargent goes into his and the company’s stance on the matter, describing a compelling moment in the world publishing industry’s contemporary controversies around the freedom to publish.

“It is about much more than Fire and Fury,” he writes, calling Trump’s effort to quash the book “flagrantly unconstitutional.”

Sales of Fire and Fury have been so swift that print copies became extremely hard to find within hours of the release. All weekend, as today, Amazon.com’s listings say the book “usually ships in two to four weeks.” Rachel Deahl at Publishers Weekly reports, “Now the worry is that Holt may lose sales because of the current unavailability of the book. If the news cycle moves on within a week, copies could start hitting the market just as interest in the book begins to die down.”

Publishing Perspectives has been provided with a copy of the Sargent memo, and we have it here, in full, for you. As you read, it may be interesting to remember the track record of the Henry Holt division, in particular. One of the oldest publishers in the States, it was founded in 1866 and has published works not only by Norman Mailer, Erich Fromm, Hilary Mantel, and Billy Crystal, but also Bill O’Reilly.

Macmillan CEO Memo to Employees in Response to Trump’s Cease-and-Desist Letter

John Sargent

To: All Macmillan Employees
From: John Sargent

Last Thursday, shortly after 7:00 a.m., we received a demand from the President of the United States to “immediately cease and desist from any further publication, release or dissemination” of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury. On Thursday afternoon we responded with a short statement saying that we would publish the book, and we moved the pub date forward to the next day. Later today we will send our legal response to President Trump.

Our response is firm, as it has to be. I am writing you today to explain why this is a matter of great importance. It is about much more than Fire and Fury.

The president is free to call news “fake” and to blast the media. That goes against convention, but it is not unconstitutional. But a demand to cease and desist publication—a clear effort by the President of the United States to intimidate a publisher into halting publication of an important book on the workings of the government—is an attempt to achieve what is called prior restraint. That is something that no American court would order as it is flagrantly unconstitutional.

This is very clearly defined in Supreme Court case law, most prominently in the Pentagon Papers case. As Justice Hugo Black explained in his concurrence:

“There is no ambiguity here. This is an underlying principle of our democracy. We cannot stand silent. We will not allow any president to achieve by intimidation what our Constitution precludes him or her from achieving in court.”John Sargent

“Both the history and language of the First Amendment support the view that the press must be left free to publish news, whatever the source, without censorship, injunctions, or prior restraints. In the First Amendment, 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 Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government.”

Then there is Justice William Brennan’s opinion in The New York Times Co. v. Sullivan:

“Thus we consider this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”

And finally Chief Justice Warren Burger in another landmark case:

“The thread running through all these cases is that prior restraints on speech and publication are the most serious and least tolerable infringement on First Amendment rights.”

There is no ambiguity here. This is an underlying principle of our democracy. We cannot stand silent. We will not allow any president to achieve by intimidation what our Constitution precludes him or her from achieving in court. We need to respond strongly for Michael Wolff and his book, but also for all authors and all their books, now and in the future. And as citizens we must demand that President Trump understand and abide by the First Amendment of our Constitution.


More at Publishing Perspectives on the controversy around Michael Wolff’s ‘Fire and Fury” from Macmillan’s Henry Holt & Company:

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He is also co-owner and editor with Jane Friedman of The Hot Sheet, the newsletter for trade and indie authors. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook, at London's The Bookseller. Anderson has also worked with CNN International, CNN.com, CNN USA, the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other media.