Melania Trump’s ‘Daily Mail’ lawsuit: A FLOTUS first? – USA TODAY
Melania Trump has refiled her lawsuit against Mail Media in New York after it was rejected in Maryland for “jurisdictional issues.”
First lady Melania Trump has returned to the legal battlefield against the American outpost of Britain’s rowdy tabloid, TheÂ Daily Mail:Â She’s refiled her $150 millionÂ libel lawsuit against the powerful publication, which has been comparatively friendly to her husband’s political career.
It’s an unprecedented move for a first lady, but Trump, 46, is goingÂ afterÂ theÂ MailÂ and its website MailOnline.com because they were among several less-than-fastidious media publications that reported in August on allegations that Trump, a former model, once worked for Milan and New York modeling agenciesÂ that also operated as escort agencies.
At the time the Daily Mail story was first published in August 2016,Â sheÂ strongly denied those allegations as “100% false and tremendously damaging to her personal and professional reputation,â according to her lawyers’ statementÂ at the time. A month later, TheÂ MailÂ issued a retraction. (She also won an apology and settlement from a Maryland blogger who published a similar story.)
On Monday, theÂ first lady refiled her lawsuit against Mail Media Inc., in New York state court,Â after her initial effort to file in Maryland was rejected by a judge as the wrong venue. MailOnline.com, which is based in New York, claims to be the biggest, most-read news website in the world.
A spokesman for MailOnline did not return a message from USA TODAY seeking comment.
Her lawsuitÂ asserts the escort storyÂ damaged her chances of profiting from her high profile, which expanded when she married Donald Trump in 2005Â but has soared since he was elected president in November and the Slovenian native became the first foreign-born first lady in nearly two centuries.
Trump’s filing claims she “had the unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, as an extremely famous and well-known person, as well as a former professional model, brand spokesperson and successful businesswoman, to launch a broad-based commercial brand in multiple product categories, each of which could have garnered multi-million dollar business relationships for a multi-year term during which Plaintiff is one of the most photographed women in the world.â
Those product categories could have included apparel, accessories, jewelry, cosmetics, hair care and fragrance, among others, the lawsuit says.
But hold the outrage â Trump’s attorney, California media lawyer Charles Harder, insists that doesn’t mean she intends to monetize her new role as critics have implied.
“The first lady has no intention of using her position for profit and will not do so,” Harder said in an emailed statement to USA TODAY. “It is not a possibility.Â Any statements to the contrary are being misinterpreted.”
But when pressed for a reason for why her lawsuit contains such language, Harder did not respond.
Profiting from their position has not been an issue for modern first ladies, although it’s not clear that doing so would be illegal given that the “job” is unofficial, undefined and unpaid.
First lady historian Myra Gutin, a professor at Rider UniversityÂ in Lawrenceville, N.,J.,Â says a few first ladies have participated in commercial projects in the pastÂ â books, radio broadcasts, TV programsÂ â but they donated their pay to charity.
“It’sÂ such murky territory,” Gutin said. “No,Â there is nothing that would prohibit her from profiting. But it would be a first.”
It’s also a first for a first lady to file a lawsuit, although Trump wasn’t yet FLOTUS when she originally filed hers.
“It’s unprecedented for a president (to file a libel suit), let alone a first lady,” says Mark Feldstein, a former NBC investigative reporter and a journalism professor at the University of Maryland.
He says former President Theodore Roosevelt once sued a Michigan newspaper for calling him a drunk;the president won after the reporter admitted it was false and apologized on the stand. “Roosevelt shook his hand and dropped the suit.”
Mrs. Trump must clear a high bar in order to prevail.Â Unlike in the Mail‘s home country, libel lawsuits are difficult to win in the United States, especially if the defendant is rich and powerful and the plaintiff is a public figureÂ like Trump. In those kinds of cases, a plaintiff must prove a high standard of “actual malice” on the part of the defendant in order to win.
The recentÂ victoryÂ of Hulk Hogan â also represented by Harder â against Gawker Media over a leaked sex tape, which resulted in a multi-million-dollar judgmentÂ and led to the website’s demise, gave hope to some media lawyers and plaintiffs that the power balance may be shifting to the point where the burden of proof in America becomes less stringent, as inÂ the United Kingdom.
“I think this (Trump suit) will get tossed pretty quickly,” Feldstein says. “I donât see this as challenging New York Times vs Sullivan, which is the linchpin of (libel) law, that there is an extraordinarily high threshold to prove libel of a public figure. It not only has to be false, it has to be published with actual malice, meaning reckless disregard for the truth.”
President Trump has vowed to “open up” libel laws to make it easier for plaintiffs suing media publications to win, although he hasn’t said how he plans to do that. “Weâre a long way from libel laws being changed courtesy of Donald Trump,” Feldstein says. “This case is not a silver bullet.”