On Wednesday night, the New York Times published a bombshell report in which two women accused Donald Trump of doing what he had once boasted about in previously leaked audio: groping and forcibly kissing them.
Trump is reacting to the story as he has to many other issues in the past: with legal threats.
Trump’s lawyers sent a letter issuing the threat to Times executive editor Dean Baquet:
“Your article is reckless, defamatory and constitutes libel per se,” the letter claims. “It is apparent from, among other things, the timing of the article, that it is nothing more than a politically-motivated effort to defeat Mr. Trump’s candidacy. That is why you apparently performed an entirely inadequate investigation to test the veracity of these false and malicious allegations, including why these two individuals waited, in one case, 11 years, and, in another case, more than three decades, before deciding to come forward with these false and defamatory statements.”
It goes on to claim that the Times “is willing to provide a platform to anyone wishing to smear Mr. Trump’s name and reputation prior to the election irrespective of whether the alleged statements have any basis in fact.” And it demands that the Times immediately retract the article and apologize or else Trump will be left with “no option but to pursue all available actions and remedies.”
The letter is not a lawsuit, but it is threatening to file a lawsuit if the Times does not comply.
If Trump does proceed with a lawsuit, he’ll have an incredibly difficult task ahead of him: He’ll have to prove that the allegations are false and were published with malicious intent. The latter would require Trump to prove that the Times knowingly published false information about him — a very tough requirement to overcome in court. No one really seems to believe Trump can do this, based on reporting in other media outlets.
The legal battle could also backfire: It could lead to a broad discovery process in which the Times could essentially pursue information about Trump’s entire sexual history. That could potentially cause more damage to Trump’s reputation and campaign, especially if more allegations of sexual assault are uncovered in the process.
But perhaps Trump’s intent here isn’t actually to go to court and win on the merits, but to intimidate the Times and other media outlets. Not every outlet is as big as the Times, and not every outlet can afford a major legal challenge (see: Gawker.com). So the threat could scare outlets from pursuing similar stories about sexual assault allegations against Trump.
The Times, for its part, doesn’t seem too worried. Baquet told CNN, “I think it is pretty evident this story falls clearly in the realm of public service journalism, and discussing issues that arose from the tape and his comments since it surfaced.”