Melania Trump settles libel suits with newspaper

Posted at 11:28 AM, Apr 12, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-12 13:28:38-04

First Lady Melania Trump. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

By Ese Olumhense

Tabloid’s claims caused Melania “a great deal of upset”

The British newspaper The Daily Mail will pay First Lady Melania Trump damages to settle two libel suits brought over a 2016 article suggesting that, while working as a professional model, she “provided services beyond simply modeling.” The publication also issued an apology for the now-retracted August 2016 article.

The original article, titled “Racy photos and troubling questions about his wife’s past that could derail Trump,” falsely suggested that a modeling agency for which the first lady worked in the 1990s was also an escort service.

“The allegations strike at the heart of the claimant’s personal integrity and dignity,” a statement issued by both parties said. “The claimant has not acted as alleged. The suggestion that such allegations even merit investigation is deeply offensive and has caused a great deal of upset to the claimant.”

Details concerning damages and costs have not been disclosed, but the settlement is “understood to be under $3 million,” The Guardian reported on Wednesday. Melania Trump sought $150 million in damages when the suits were first filed in the U.S. and in the U.K. in September.

Escort allegations hurt the Trump brand, suit said

Claims made by The Daily Mail and other publications that Melania Trump was an “elite escort” jeopardized future opportunities for her — “an extremely famous and well-known person, as well as a former professional model and brand spokesperson, and successful businesswoman”  — to “launch a broad-based commercial brand in multiple product categories, ” her complaint read. (The U.S. case was first filed in Maryland in September and refiled in New York in February.)

Potential product opportunities, the February complaint said, included branded “apparel, accessories, shoes, jewelry, cosmetics, hair care, skin care and fragrance” ventures throughout “the multi-year term during which Plaintiff is one of the most photographed women in the world.”

The filings prompted questions from some following Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, who wondered, based on these characterizations, whether the Trumps intended to capitalize on Donald Trump’s potential presidency. The New York Times editorial board called the complaint’s claims “galling” and “revelatory”; an NPR analysis said the wording “reveals plans for yet another extension of the Trump empire.”

“In England you have a good chance of winning”

In February 2016, before Melania Trump first brought suit against The Daily Mail, Donald Trump said he hoped to “open up [American] libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.”

Later that year, in October, he again called for changes to libel laws, advocating for a system like that in England, where “you have a good chance of winning” libel lawsuits, he said.

Trump is right. British law does make filing libel cases easier because the burden of proof is on the defendant, i.e., the journalist is required to prove the challenged statement is accurate. The opposite is true in the U.S., where the Supreme Court has ruled that public figures bringing libel suits must prove the claims were both false and published maliciously.

All of this is likely why Melania Trump’s case was settled in her favor in the UK, a decision The Guardian reports will cover both suits against The Daily Mail in the UK and the U.S.

President Trump has continued his call to change libel laws, recently tweeting his discontent with coverage of him in The New York Times. Unfortunately for him, the U.S. doesn’t have a federal libel law. The First Amendment offers unique protections for journalists, the Supreme Court has ruled, and only a ruling from them could change how the law is interpreted.