Donald Trump used to call me his psychologist.
The reason, he’d say, is that I sweet-talked him out of suing so often. I had to: I was a top editor at the Wall Street Journal, a newspaper he read fairly closely, and then executive editor of The Post, a paper he took an interest in as he started making investments in Virginia and Washington and then got more active in politics.
There were certain topics that Trump wanted off-limits, and legal threats were how he tried to keep them that way.
His wealth, for example. Reporters who suggested that he wasn’t a billionaire risked getting a threatening call. Trump unsuccessfully sued journalist Timothy O’Brien, author of the book “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald,” for US$5 billion after O’Brien reported estimates that Trump at the time was worth between US$150 million and US$250 million, not the $5 billion to $6 billion Trump liked to claim. (No points for observing that Trump may have hoped to get there by winning the lawsuit, if only O’Brien had had the money.)
“The last thing we need in this society, or at this time, is a leader who thinks a free and open press is something to be curbed.”
The hallowed Trump brand was another verboten subject. Trump licensed his name to developers and businesses, who, from time to time, tarnished the brand with their failures. They risked lawsuits, of course, and Trump threatened to sue journalists who wrote about the missteps.
The list of hot-button issues for Trump was long. The list of successful Trump lawsuits against journalists is short. (I can’t find a lasting legal victory in a case against a journalist but won’t swear there isn’t one.)
American libel law doesn’t favor those who willingly enter the arena. Unless a public figure – and Trump has been that for most of his life – can prove a journalist knowingly published something false, the courts generally toss the case out.
But that clearly wasn’t the point for Trump. For him, the threat of a defamation or libel lawsuit, let alone the cost to a defendant of a suit that was filed, could be an effective cudgel. Editors and their publishers know that the burden of defending against a lawsuit, even a frivolous one, is real.
“There were certain topics that Trump wanted off-limits, and legal threats were how he tried to keep them that way.”
That’s why I far preferred talking Trump out of suing. It wasn’t difficult – I’d listen to his arguments, usually endure a barrage of profanity aimed at my hard-working colleagues, and then, on at least a couple of occasions, invite him to come to the office for lunch or a meeting with other editors to vent.
We never gave in on a point of fact or surrendered our right or determination to publish what we deemed stories of interest or the truth about Trump or his businesses. (I think the record is clear that the Journal and Post newsrooms have covered him thoroughly and fairly, whatever he may think of editorials and occasional op-eds such as this one.)
But we had an advantage over others that he has sued or threatened to sue: We were big publishers, with libel insurance, stalwart lawyers and the experience to defend ourselves. For someone who uses the legal system not to resolve a dispute, but to be punitive or vindictive or as an expression of power, that could be frustrating.
Since Trump anointed me his psychologist, I’ll speculate that this is why he said on Friday that he wants to “open up our libel laws” to make it easier to sue journalists who are now, he says, “totally protected.”
He has said before that he thinks US libel laws have never been fair. Now, he cites two of the world’s best, most responsible news outfits – The Post and the New York Times – and says, “We’re going to have people sue you like you’ve never got sued before.”
“He has said before that he thinks US libel laws have never been fair.”
I’d like to argue that with Trump, such statements are a kind of pandering rhetoric designed to woo frustrated voters. But these are strange times in American politics, ominous and foreboding in the dark patterns they trace of populist, fanatic and misguided movements of the past.
As one group after another has been demonised, denigrated or demeaned in this election season, many people have cited the powerful, rebuking poem by Martin Niemöller, an opponent of Hitler’s, that begins, “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out.” The last line of the poem is what makes it so powerful: “There was no one left to speak for me.”
It is a bitter irony, but perhaps not surprising, that someone who is entirely a creature of his media-defined, social-media-amplified public image should be so fragile that he feels the need to try to curtail what people say about him.
The last thing we need in this society, or at this time, is a leader who thinks a free and open press is something to be curbed.