Donald Trump’s recent tweets that attempt to link Joe Scarborough to the death of his former congressional staffer, Lori Klausutis, could open the door to legal trouble, a legal expert says. In an op-ed for The New York Times, Peter Schuck, an emeritus professor of law at Yale, argued that the Morning Joe co-host could sue the president for defamation.
“Mr. Trump’s first tort is called intentional infliction of emotional distress, which the courts developed precisely to condemn wanton cruelty to another person who suffers emotionally as a result,” Schuck wrote.
According to the visiting professor at the University of California, Trump’s tweets about Klausutis fall into this tort, as the president was “intentional” and “reckless” in his “outrage” without providing any evidence to support his claims. Schuck also noted that the comments caused “severe emotional distress” in Klausutis’ widower. This was documented in a letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey in which Klausutis called on him to remove the tweets about his wife; the company ultimately denied the request.
Schuck argued that Klausutis’ widower likely has a stronger claim for a defamation suit due to the level of emotional distress he has been subjected to. Conversely, he noted that Scarborough brushed the posts off and thus may not have endured the “severe emotional distress” that is necessary for such a lawsuit.
“Even so, Mr. Scarborough might succeed in a defamation suit against Mr. Trump for reputational harm. After all, the president’s innuendo that Mr. Scarborough may have murdered Lori Klausutis — presumably credible to the many Trump Twitter followers who subscribe to conspiracy theories — may seriously harm Mr. Scarborough’s reputation with them and others.”
"A lot of people suggest that … very sad and very suspicious … there is no statute of limitations. So, it would be a very good thing to do" — Trump defends pushing false Joe Scarborough conspiracy theories and calls for him to be investigated pic.twitter.com/NeJQ2uBZp8
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) May 26, 2020
Schuck pointed to Scarborough’s presence as a public figure and the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling the New York Times v. Sullivan case, which separated “free public debate” from “fear of legal liability.” For this reason, the professor said, Scarborough must prove that Trump’s comments were made with the understanding that they were false, or that he did so with “reckless disregard” for the truth.
Schuck also highlighted that Trump’s tweets are often timed to fuel multiple news cycles, meaning they influence far beyond the reach of his social media ecosystem. Although the president would likely argue that he was simply “raising questions,” Schuck claims courts could deem such “calculated innuendo” as tantamount of defamation, as they have done in the past.
Ultimately, Schuck concluded that Scarborough might be able to receive “substantial punitive damages,” as well as compensation for harm to his reputation.
In response to Trump’s accusations against Scarborough, Twitter users created a character named Carolyn Gombell — a fictional woman that they accused the president of killing.