Rachel Maddow may be named in a defamation lawsuit over her reporting of Donald Trump’s 2005 tax returns, although whether Trump would prevail in such a suit – or whether the suit would even be allowed at all – is debatable at best. Further, dragging such a lawsuit through the courts could expose the president to even further embarrassment, WJLA (Washington) is reporting.
On March 14, 2017, Rachel Maddow and her guest, Pulitzer Prize-winner David Cay Johnston, pored over Trump’s 2005 tax returns in one of the most-watched segments in MSBNC history. Johnston claimed that the documents were sent to him anonymously; and indeed, the fact that the words “CLIENT COPY” were clearly and visibly stamped on the documents has fueled speculation that someone within Trump’s inner circle leaked them to Johnson.
Unfortunately for viewers hoping to see something salacious or ground-breaking, the segment revealed very little except for some mundane procedural information, such as that he paid a 24 percent effective tax rate on income of about $153 million that year.
So did Rachel Maddow commit a crime or some other actionable legal offense in revealing Trump’s tax returns?
Trump Mulls Legal Action
By Thursday, Trump’s legal team had begun threatening legal action, according to Fox Business. Speaking to Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, Trump alleged that the segment was illegal.
“I have no idea where they got it but it’s illegal and they’re not supposed to have it and it’s not supposed to be leaked…It’s certainly not an embarrassing tax return at all, but it’s an illegal thing they’ve been doing it, they’ve done it before and I think it’s a disgrace.”
However, all of that talk of legal action, so far, is just that: talk. However, Trump’s attorney, Michael Cohen, did take to Twitter to respond to Joe Scarborough’s tweet that suggested Trump himself cherry-picked and “leaked’ the tax returns himself, possibly hinting that legal action may be coming.
— Michael Cohen (@MichaelCohen212) March 15, 2017
Would A Defamation Lawsuit Stand A Chance In Court?
If the Trump team were to have any hope of convincing a court that Maddow committed defamation, he would have to prove that Maddow and Johnston obtained Trump’s tax returns illegally. And even if Johnson obtained the tax returns illegally, says Henry Weinstein, a former journalist and a professor of law at the University of California, Irvine, the First Amendment would still have his and Maddow’s backs.
“It has long been established that journalists in the U.S. can use documents that have been obtained illegally by another party, so long as the journalist did not solicit and/or encourage the other party to do something illegal to obtain the documents.”
That same doctrine has protected journalists who have published illegally-obtained information before, most notably The New York Times‘ Daniel Ellsberg, who, in the early 1970’s, released The Pentagon Papers, classified documents about the Vietnam War.
Further Embarrassment For The President
If Trump’s legal team did pursue a defamation suit against Maddow, the process would likely result in more uncomfortable or embarrassing revelations coming out in the proceedings, says Roy Gutterman, a communications law professor at Syracuse University and director of the Tully Center for Free Speech.
“Once the litigation process begins, litigants are subject to discovery and part of the discovery process is depositions.”
Will Trump Purse A Defamation Case?
It’s no secret that Trump’s relationship with the media is, and always has been, strained. And in fact, threatening to sue members of the press is par for the course for Trump, according to The Donald Trump Libel Threat Clock, which tracks Trump’s threats of legal action against journalists over the years. In almost all of those cases, Trump merely threatened to sue, but did not follow through.
Do you believe Donald Trump should sue Rachel Maddow for defamation?
[Featured Image by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for NBC]