First Lady Melania Trump sued a Maryland blogger for $150 million for libel, and he reportedly settled by paying her a “substantial sum.” Such cases are commonly settled because a court fight is so costly. The blogger had suggested that Mrs. Trump had once been a paid “escort,” which he conceded was unsubstantiated. Other similar suits remain pending.
(When I looked online for a photo — whoah! More of a first lady than we’re accustomed to seeing. I chose one of more tasteful pictures, at left.)
President Trump, hyper-allergic to criticism, has long called for changing libel laws to make suing easier. He is probably thinking of the British system, where the defendant has the burden of proof. This is a huge scandal, and has made Britain a mecca for shameful libel suits. Like Holocaust denier David Irving suing an author who wrote of his historical distortions, putting her through hell to defend herself in court (depicted in the recent film Denial).
Trump also probably wants to change the Times v. Sullivan doctrine. That was a 1964 Supreme Court decision saying that when someone criticizes a public official in the performance of their duties, a libel suit must prove not just falsity but actual malice and reckless disregard for truth.
This makes it very hard for politicians to sue, and is a major bulwark against their abuse of libel laws.* Which is a very real problem in other countries. Singapore’s late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was notorious for using libel suits to persecute political opponents who criticized him, sometimes bankrupting them in the process.
Donald Trump too is notorious for litigiousness; he’s been involved in at least three thousand lawsuits. He wants looser libel laws so he can sue even more people. But it’s also part of his bigger project to destroy the American news media as an independent information source that holds people like him accountable for lies and misdeeds. He has already succeeded partway, his constant baseless attacks having damaged mainstream media’s credibility in the minds of many people.
It’s sickening when the biggest liar in political history calls the press dishonest, “the enemy of the American people.” To the contrary, it’s Trump’s vile rhetoric that’s dishonest and a real danger to America. This is how dictators start. Democracy needs a robust free media to expose lies, corruption, and bungling. Now more than ever, with this egregious presidency!
Getting back to Melania, her feeling hurt by that blog might be understandable. Except that when you enter the White House, especially in today’s febrile political climate, you have to expect a certain amount of garbage thrown at you. The Obamas certainly endured a lot of that (notably from Mr. Donald J. Trump, loudmouth of lying “birtherism”). But the Obamas didn’t go around suing folks. It’s unbecoming for a first family; and frightening to use that power to intimidate critics. America is not Singapore.
Meantime, remember Trump’s press conference claiming to separate himself from his businesses? With all those piles of suppposed documents? Yet another Trump fraud. I wish someone had had the balls to go up and look inside those folders. But the performance at least showed recognition that exploiting the oval office for private profit is totally inappropriate (if not criminal).
Mrs. Trump, in contrast however, appears unashamed about aiming to cash in on her public position. Her lawsuit claimed that the blogger damaged her potential for anticipated “multimillion dollar business relationships” and other “major business opportunities” expected from her first ladyship. The breathtaking frankness, at least, is refreshing.
Let them sue me for this blog.
* Times v. Sullivan saved the posterior of yours truly, sued for $1.5 million for libel in 1973 when I authored a critical book about Albany’s political machine.