Trump’s lawsuit against New York Times and his niece is a ‘stunt,’ her lawyer says

Erik Larson
Bloomberg

New York – Donald Trump’s lawsuit against the New York Times and his niece Mary Trump over an award-winning investigative report on his tax avoidance – for which she provided crucial documents – is just the former president’s “latest stunt,” her lawyer said.

Donald Trump accused Mary Trump and the Times in the lawsuit of conspiring to breach a confidential family settlement, but it’s doomed to fail because the 2001 deal cited by the former president was tainted by fraud and therefore never valid, attorney Roberta Kaplan said on Wednesday.

Mary L. Trump

Kaplan noted that Donald Trump’s late brother Robert Trump unsuccessfully raised the settlement, which resolved a dispute over their father’s will, in trying to block the publication last year of Mary Trump’s tell-all book about the family. She is now suing Donald Trump and his siblings to overturn the settlement and is seeking millions of dollars in damages, claiming they lied about the value of her grandfather Fred Trump’s estate.

The lawsuit the former president filed Tuesday in state court in Dutchess County, New York, “is clearly intended as a diversion from the very compelling fraud case that Mary Trump filed against Donald and his siblings,” said Kaplan.

Roy Gutterman, director of the Tully Center for Free Speech and professor at Syracuse University, said Trump is highly unlikely to win anything from the New York Times or its reporters because legal precedent provides extensive protection to news-gathering activities. That applies to things they should not have, including leaked tax records, he said.

“The Supreme Court has acknowledged that reporters can rely on leaked materials as long as they did not break to law to get them,” he said. “There is not a scintilla of evidence that the Times broke the law to collect this information.”

Donald Trump denied his niece’s fraud claims and moved to dismiss her lawsuit, as did his sister Maryanne Trump Barry and the estate of Robert Trump, who died last year.

The 2018 Times report, which won a Pulitzer Prize, detailed how Trump’s real estate business claimed suspiciously low valuations on properties to minimize tax liability and also revealed that his inheritance from his father was worth more than $400 million, contrary to his frequent assertion that he only received a small loan of around $1 million.

Mary Trump, a psychologist who has blasted her uncle as a bully and liar, admitted in her book that she was the source for the Times article, which the newspaper said was “based on a vast trove of confidential tax returns and financial records.” Donald Trump claims the Times induced his niece to violate the 2001 accord and individually named three reporters in the suit.

“The Times’s coverage of Donald Trump’s taxes helped inform citizens through meticulous reporting on a subject of overriding public interest,” Danielle Rhoades Ha, a spokeswoman for the Times, said in a statement. “This lawsuit is an attempt to silence independent news organizations and we plan to vigorously defend against it.”

Trump is seeking at least $100 million in damages. His lawyer, Alina Habba, didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

“The defendants engaged in an insidious plot to obtain confidential and highly-sensitive records which they exploited for their own benefit and utilized as a means of falsely legitimizing their publicized works,” Donald Trump said in Tuesday’s complaint. “The defendants’ actions were motivated by a personal vendetta and their desire to gain fame, notoriety, acclaim and a financial windfall.”

Trump’s company, the Trump Organization, and its longtime chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, are currently facing tax-fraud charges in Manhattan for scheming to help employees avoid taxes by paying them in unreported perks like housing and cars. Both have pleaded not guilty, and the former president has said the case is politically motivated.