Dershowitz: Author Michael Wolff fictionalized my dinner with Trump
In his new bestselling book, “Siege: Trump Under Fire,” author Michael Wolff makes up a story about me from whole cloth. He wrote, “Dershowitz was invited to dinner at the White House to discuss representing the president. He was just the kind of lawyer the president thought he needed: an aggressive advocate who could argue his case on television. Over dinner, Dershowitz asked for a retainer of a million dollars. Trump, ever believing that part of the legal game was not paying your lawyers, told Dershowitz he would get back to him. But the conversation was over. Never in a million years would he pay a lawyer a million bucks up front!”
There is no truth whatsoever to this story. I never had a conversation with President Trump or anyone else about a possible retainer to represent him. No figure of $1 million or anything else was ever discussed. The story is entirely fictional. I have published dozens of nonfiction books and, in every case, my editors have demanded that I get a confirmation or denial from anyone I am writing about. Yet, neither Wolff nor his publisher ever called me to ask me whether the story was true. If they had, I would have told them that it was false. At least then they could have printed my denial next to the false account. Instead, however, they simply went ahead and published their defamatory falsehood without even publishing my denial.
This is not journalism. It is fiction writing, and bad fiction at that. I doubt that Wolff even has a credible source for that story because there were only a handful of people at my dinner with the president, at which we primarily discussed the Middle East peace plan under the administration. None of them would make up such a story. If the source is someone not at the dinner, then Wolff should have said that he was relying on hearsay.
I do not know whether the rest of the book is filled with similar tales, but there is a legal principle that judges instruct jurors. When a person tells one falsehood, you should look skeptically at everything else that person says or writes. I urge readers of “Siege” to bear this principle in mind. Wolff himself is infamous for relying on not very credible sources and printing tales of fantasy. He is more an entertainer than a journalist. He panders to people who love to read gossip whether it is true or false.
While I am not one to throw around the term “fake news” with impunity, writers like Wolff hurt the credibility of real journalists who do not publish gossipy tidbits without any confirmation from credible sources. What is surprising is not what Wolff did, but what his publisher, editor, and lawyers did not do. Publishers have a responsibility to demand credible proof from their writers, especially when they are planning to publish material that is damaging to the reputation of a subject. The outright false claim that I asked for $1 million to represent the president, and that my demand was turned down, is damaging to my reputation if believed. It could also be the basis for a defamation action against both Wolff and his publishers.
It is surprising, therefore, that the lawyers for the publisher were not more demanding of Wolff to back up his claims. The lawyers for my publishers would never have allowed such a defamatory falsehood to be published without careful vetting. In my forthcoming book, “Defending Israel: The Story of My Relationship with My Most Challenging Client,” lawyers for the publisher had me take out material regarding several people I mentioned because I did not have any documented evidence of my criticisms, even though they were completely accurate. Yet, the lawyers for the publisher of Wolff let this falsehood about me be published without even the most minimal effort to reach me and get my reaction. If this is their standard regarding other claims made in the book, then let the reader beware.
Unfortunately, this careless attitude toward defaming others without corroboration is a sign of the times. In the age of Trump, where charges buzz around like mosquitoes, truth seems to be a diminishing virtue. Unless there are professional, reputational, and legal consequences for willfully disseminating false gossip, it will only get worse. Readers will suffer, good writers will suffer, and political dialogue will further erode.
Alan M. Dershowitz is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law, Emeritus, at Harvard Law School. His new book is “The Case Against the Democratic House Impeaching Trump.” You can follow him on Twitter @AlanDersh.
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