A Warning, the latest book-length takedown of Donald Trump—whose author, “Anonymous,” is described as “a senior official in the Trump administration”—was already the No. 1 best-seller on Amazon when Trump’s Department of Justice decided to boost the book’s sales even more.
“He’s very good at promoting his critics, isn’t he?” a prominent member of the White House press corps told The Daily Beast about the 45th president this week. Assistant Attorney General Joseph H. Hunt—the erstwhile chief of staff to Trump’s beleaguered first attorney general, Jeff Sessions—had just sent a letter containing an implied threat of legal action against the author, his/her literary agents and publisher, Hachette subsidiary Twelve, for possible breaches of non-disclosure agreements. “I want to go to the book party. They could have the party and just say ‘Anonymous’ is one of the people in this room.”
The letter from DOJ’s civil division also requests enough specific information about the supposed non-disclosure agreements and Anonymous’ alleged “access to any classified information”—“immediately,” it demands—to bring about the author’s likely unmasking.
Since Sept. 5, 2018, when The New York Times published that famous un-bylined op-ed under the headline “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” there has been endless speculation about the identity of the author. Disaffected former Trump supporter Ann Coulter, for one, guessed it was Jared Kushner.
That seems highly unlikely, however, especially because the author has chosen not only to refuse a potential seven-figure advance (not Kushner’s M.O.), but also to earmark an unspecified but significant portion of royalties for U.S. and international organizations devoted to holding powerful government officials accountable.
That display of altruism could help defang the predictable criticism from Team Trump that Anonymous is simply out to make a quick buck. And if the Justice Department goes forward—and prevails—with civil litigation to garnish the author’s proceeds, it could also severely limit the government’s reward.
The White House Correspondents Association, meanwhile, will be among the beneficiaries.
“I look forward to reading the book,” said ABC News White House correspondent Jonathan Karl, president of the White House Correspondents Association, “and imagine the publisher appreciates the extra publicity from the Justice Department.”
Indeed. A Warning—for which Twelve was already printing half a million copies with plans for more to meet the demand of booksellers—is still under wraps and isn’t scheduled for publication until Nov. 19. Yet the Trump administration has unwittingly managed to market the upcoming exposé far more effectively than any publisher’s sales team ever could.
“I often fail to understand what the government thinks it is accomplishing when it sends letters or takes positions like this,” said Washington attorney Mark S. Zaid, who has represented several authors in pre-publication disputes with the feds. “All this does is increase public interest in the book and draw attention to it.”
Zaid, who also represents the whistleblower in the ongoing Trump impeachment proceedings (so-far unidentified, at least by the U.S. media), likened the current controversy to a 2010 dispute in which the Pentagon purchased and shredded the entire 9,500-copy first printing of Operation Dark Heart—an account of American spycraft in Afghanistan by Zaid’s then-client, retired Defense Intelligence Agency officer Anthony Shaffer.
“There were all these news stories about how DOD [the Department of Defense] purchased this book and destroyed it—knowing full-well that review copies had been sent to reporters,” Zaid recalled. Once St. Martin’s Press re-published Shaffer’s book after Zaid sued the Pentagon, which ultimately agreed to minimal redactions, “it catapulted the book to No. 7 on The New York Times Bestseller List,” Zaid said. “It ended up making the publisher a lot of money that it never would have made otherwise.”
In the current situation, “who knows if the White House was involved in telling DOJ to send this letter or not or if they did it on their own,” Zaid added. The Justice Department didn’t respond to that question and several others posed by The Daily Beast.
“But it’s very shortsighted from a PR standpoint,” Zaid continued. “What is the effect you’re trying to accomplish, and are you not actually achieving the opposite? Wasn’t sending that letter a textbook case of the Streisand effect?”
That’s the phenomenon coined for Barbra Streisand’s 2003 invasion-of-privacy lawsuit against a photographer who’d posted an aerial image of her Malibu estate; publicity surrounding the diva’s litigation ended up exponentially increasing the number of views of the offending photo from six—including two by her lawyers—to 420,000, while Streisand’s suit was dismissed, and the court ordered her pay the photographer’s $155,567 in legal fees.
Both Hachette, Twelve’s parent company, and Javelin, the author’s Alexandria, Virginia-based literary agents, promptly rejected DOJ’s demands.
“Hachette is not party to any nondisclosure agreements with the U.S. government that would require any pre-publication review of this book, and Hachette routinely relies on its authors to comply with any contractual obligations they may have,” wrote Carol Ross, the general counsel for Hachette Book Group, in her letter to Assistant Attorney General Hunt. “Hachette has, however, made a commitment of confidentiality to Anonymous and we intend to honor that commitment. Please be assured that Hachette takes its legal responsibilities seriously and, accordingly, Hachette respectfully declines to provide you with the information your letter seeks.”
Javelin principals Keith Urbahn and Matt Latimer, meanwhile, issued this statement: “Our author knows that the President is determined to unmask whistleblowers who may be in his midst. That’s one of the reasons A WARNING was written. But we support the publisher in its resolve that the administration’s effort to intimidate and expose the senior official who has seen misconduct at the highest levels will not prevent this book from moving forward.”
Latimer and Urbahn, who in their former lives were Republican operatives and toiled in the George W. Bush administration (Latimer as a White House speechwriter, Urbahn as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s chief of staff), have thrived on literary controversy during their decade as agents and book packagers. Among their clients—the author of another best-seller—is fired FBI Director James Comey (although they’ve also represented books by Trump cheerleaders Tucker Carlson of Fox News and Sens. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee).
“I don’t know how determined the Justice Department is,” Latimer told The Daily Beast. “But we believe strongly getting the facts out to the American people, and we’ve represented authors all across the spectrum who have done that. There are good reasons why this author is anonymous. And the effort to unmask and uncover whistleblowers is a dangerous thing.”
The author of A Warning reached out to Javelin barely six months ago—after also considering representation by noted Washington literary gatekeeper and mega-lawyer Bob Barnett—and quickly produced the book. Latimer and Twelve editorial director Sean Desmond are among very few people who have met with Anonymous.
“We believe this person has something very important to say,” Latimer added. “This person has the credentials and has a serious message.”
Mark Zaid predicted that the message, in any case, will be widely received. “Now it’s the book the government doesn’t want you to read. That’s perfect for them [the author and the publisher]. If I was Twelve, I’d be saying, ‘Thank you, Government!’ ”