Publisher Defied Trump to ‘Defend the Principles of the First Amendment’
On Monday, John Sargent, the chief executive of Macmillan, Holt’s parent company, sent a letter to the company’s employees, arguing that “as citizens we must demand that President Trump understand and abide by the First Amendment of our Constitution.”
In an interview with The New York Times on Monday, Mr. Sargent spoke about the response generated by “Fire and Fury.”
This interview has been condensed and edited.
What was your initial reaction when you learned of the cease-and-desist letter?
I was in a hotel room in Phoenix, Ariz., and my initial reaction was that I was completely stunned. The person who told me said, ‘Are you sitting down?’ and I said yes, and they said, ‘We have just received a cease-and-desist letter from the president of the United States.’ The reason I was stunned is that it is actually hard to conceive that a sitting president of the United States would issue a cease-and-desist order, because it is extraordinarily unconstitutional.
From a commercial perspective, are you happy about the president’s response?
Yes, I think the president’s response has undeniably increased the sales of the book and increased the reach of the book. I think the book is important. The book is a window into how our government under the present administration is working, so the more people who can read it, the better. And that is our concern, both culturally, as publishers, but also financially.
From the letter that your outside counsel released this afternoon, it sounds like the company doesn’t give much weight to Mr. Trump’s lawyer’s claim that the book is libelous. Can you elaborate on why it strikes the company as a weak libel case?
I’d prefer not to comment on matters that go around litigation on this. Our letter from our outside lawyer speaks pretty clearly about what our thoughts are, and I’d rather let those comments stand.
In that case, let’s talk about your own letter, which was a powerful, pro-First Amendment statement that you sent to employees. Why did you feel it was important to send that message to people working for Macmillan?
The president of the United States tried to stop the publication of this book. We were about to send a very stern letter back to the president, and people here needed to understand why this was such a big problem, why it was more important than the book itself. Free speech is one of the fundamental underpinnings of democracy, but it’s also what we are about as publishers. And everybody in the company, particularly the younger people in the company, needed to understand how culturally important to the country it is that we defend the principles of the First Amendment.
Why do you think Michael Wolff was particularly suited to covering this presidency?
They key to the coverage was access. This is about access, and for whatever reason, which I don’t know and can’t speculate on, but for whatever reason, the Trump administration was comfortable having Michael in the White House, and he was in the White House all the time.
News organizations and administration officials have pointed out some factual errors in the book. Does Holt plan to correct any errors in future editions?
We, as a policy, always correct errors, if we find them, in reprints of the book. The issue you have here — and Michael is quite specific about it — in the course of a day in the White House, there are a lot of people saying a lot of things, some of which are factual, some of which are not factual. So Michael reporting on something that is not factual can easily happen, because he’s reporting on people talking about these things. Right now, we have found nothing in the book that needs correcting. I think there’s a typo in it.