The lawsuit filed by the wife of Donald Trump against the Daily Mail is a message to the media from her husband “to stay away from my family, particularly Melania”, his biographer has said.
Lawyers for Melania Trump on Thursday filed suit for $150m in damages against the newspaper in Maryland state court. The wife of the Republican presidential nominee is also suing a blogger, Webster Tarpley, from the state in question.
In a statement, Trump’s lawyer, Charles Harder, said: “These defendants made several statements about Mrs Trump that are 100% false and tremendously damaging to her personal and professional reputation [and] broadcast their lies to millions of people throughout the US and the world – without any justification.
“Their many lies include, among others, that Mrs Trump supposedly was an ‘escort’ in the 1990s before she met her husband. Defendants’ actions are so egregious, malicious and harmful to Mrs Trump that her damages are estimated at $150m.”
The suit was filed in Montgomery County, a suburban area bordering Washington DC, in response to articles published in August by the Daily Mail that reported rumors that Melania Trump worked as an escort in the 1990s.
Last month, announcing that she was considering a suit, her lawyer called those rumors “100% false”.
In an interview with the Guardian, biographer Wayne Barrett, who has been threatened with lawsuits by Trump in the past over his reporting, said that the lawsuit seemed to be “more a threat to other reporters, publishers, news organizations” to shy away from reporting about the Republican nominee’s wife.
The author of Trump: The Greatest Show on Earth and Trump: The Deals and the Downfall noted that the candidate had a reputation for litigiousness with reporters and said Trump had bragged to him nearly 40 years ago about “breaking reporters”. Barrett noted that, at the time, “there hadn’t been anything written negative about Donald”.
Trump went on to sue author Tim O’Brien for reporting that the Republican nominee had exaggerated his wealth in what Barrett described as an “attempt to wreck O’Brien”. (The suit was dismissed.) Barrett added that Trump’s approach with the press had always been, “from the very beginning, to threaten, browbeat, seduce them”.
The Daily Mail article also contained allegations that Melania Trump came to New York a year earlier than she has claimed, raising issues about her immigration status. Trump denied a story in Politico in which questions about her immigration status were first reported.
The lawsuit noted that while the article in question had been removed from the Daily Mail’s website, the newspaper had yet to apologize or formally retract it. The Mail included a retraction of the story in its Friday UK print edition.
“We did not intend to state or suggest that these allegations are true,” the newspaper said, “nor did we intend to state or suggest that Mrs Trump ever worked as an ‘escort’ or in the ‘sex business’.” It added that its article had included denials from a Trump spokesperson and the owner of the modelling agency in question, and said it regretted “any such misinterpretation”.
The retraction was also posted online. “The Daily Mail newspaper and MailOnline/DailyMail.com have entirely separate editors and journalistic teams,” it added. “In so far as MailOnline/DailyMail.com published the same article it wholeheartedly also retracts the above and also regrets any such misinterpretation.”
Asked if the retraction would affect the suit, Harder replied: “It does not.”
Tarpley’s blogpost, which has been retracted, claimed, per the suit, that “it is widely known Melania was not a working model but rather a high-end escort” and that she had a “mental breakdown” after a plagiarism controversy over her speech to the Republican national convention in Cleveland in July.
Harder is best known for representing Hulk Hogan in the lawsuit that bankrupted Gawker Media and forced its sale to Univision last month. That suit was funded by the Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, a vocal Trump supporter.
Steve Klepper, an appellate lawyer for the Baltimore law firm Kramon & Graham, said the inclusion of a blogger in the suit indicated legal maneuvering.
He told the Guardian: “Any time you have a filing that adds a minor in-state defendant, it’s a flag that they were joined to prevent removal to federal court. And as we know, Donald Trump has not been having been the best luck in federal court recently.”
Klepper pointed to a Maryland defamation statute that might provide a basis for Melania Trump’s suit. It reads: “A single or married woman whose character or reputation for chastity is defamed by any person may maintain an action against that person.”
He added, however: “Montgomery County has possibly the highest-percentage college education jury pool in the whole country and I cannot see how the jury pool would be good for [Melania Trump].”
News of the lawsuit came 68 days before the election, on the day Donald Trump pledged to promote “patriotism” in schools and a day after he gave a hardline immigration policy speech, hours after striking conciliatory notes on the topic in a meeting with the Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto.
The Republican nominee, who has consistently trailed Hillary Clinton in the polls, has developed a combative relationship with the media, blacklisting a number of news outlets and pledging to pass stricter libel laws if elected.
A Trump campaign spokesperson told the Guardian: “We do not have anything in addition to the Harder statement.”
The Daily Mail responded to a request for comment by pointing to its online and print retractions.