New York – In a decisive legal setback, former President Donald Trump has been ordered to pay nearly $400,000 in attorneys’ fees to The New York Times and three investigative reporters after an unsuccessful lawsuit he filed against them over a 2018 story detailing his family’s wealth and tax practices.
Manhattan Judge Robert Reed ruled on Friday that Trump must compensate the newspaper and journalists Susanne Craig, David Barstow and Russell Buettner for legal costs associated with defending themselves against Trump’s libel case, which accused them of being motivated by “personal vendetta” in their reporting.
The judge dismissed the newspaper and reporters from the lawsuit back in May. But Trump’s related claim against his estranged niece Mary Trump, alleging she violated a confidentiality agreement by providing the reporters with tax records, is still pending.
The New York Times story in question drew on more than 100,000 pages of confidential financial documents, including Fred Trump’s tax returns, to investigate how Donald Trump and his father avoided millions in gift and inheritance taxes over the years through various schemes, including setting up a shell company and undervaluing assets.
Mary Trump was eventually revealed as the source for the trove of financial records. Her “tell-all” book published in 2020 chronicled her experience being part of the Trump family and deciding to assist the Times’ investigation.
Lawyers for the Gray Lady celebrated Judge Reed’s latest decision as a victory for press freedom and a warning for those who try to silence journalists through frivolous litigation. The anti-SLAPP statute in New York is intended to deter such lawsuits.
“The court has sent a message that people cannot use the judicial system to chill journalists from scrutinizing public figures,” said Times spokesperson Danielle Rhoads Ha.
But Trump’s attorney Alina Habba expressed disappointment that the newspaper and reporters were let off the hook, stating they remain resolute in pursuing claims against Mary Trump over her alleged breach of contract.
This is just the latest episode in Trump’s long-running battle against the “fake news” media, which he often decries as biased, dishonest and out to get him. However, the courts have consistently ruled against the former president’s attempts to intimidate or punish journalists and news organizations for unflattering coverage through libel litigation.
Constitutional law experts argue Trump fundamentally misunderstands the extremely high bar for public figures like himself to prove defamation against the free press. But the former real estate mogul-turned-politician has never been one to back down from a fight.
During his presidency, Trump repeatedly threatened to “open up libel laws” to make it easier to sue news outlets. He filed numerous lawsuits against media companies, few of which have succeeded.
In a high-profile defamation case against writer E. Jean Carroll, who accused Trump of sexual assault in the 1990s, his DNA was recently obtained pursuant to court order. Trump tried to delay providing a sample to match against evidence Carroll says she has from a dress she wore during the alleged encounter.
Critics condemned Trump’s lawsuit against his niece as a similar attempt to abuse the courts and intimidate detractors. Mary Trump maintains the action is entirely retaliatory, designed to chill free speech critical of her famous relative, who has a long history of trying to use non-disclosure agreements and lawsuits to silence unfavorable press coverage and former associates.
With Judge Reed’s latest ruling, the former president has once again been reminded that even the brute force of America’s litigious legal system has its limits when it comes to his war against the free press.