In documents filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court earlier this month, the two defendants facing off against Melania Trump in a defamation lawsuit say the future first lady’s case is based on limited legal grounds.
Trump filed a civil lawsuit in September against the British tabloid the Daily Mail and Clarksburg blogger Webster Tarpley, claiming they defamed her by publishing two separate posts containing allegedly false statements about rumors that she worked as an escort in New York City during the 1990s before marrying Donald Trump, now president-elect.
Tarpley, 70, published a blog post Aug. 2 in which he claimed he was passing along “rumors” that were circulating around the internet about Melania Trump’s past, according to the legal filings. In a document filed Dec. 2, Tarpley’s attorneys asserted that Trump’s lawsuit is “intended to inhibit Mr. Tarpley’s exercise of his rights under the First Amendment.” It says the controversial details in the post are “not statements of fact” and that “Mrs. Trump is a public figure and has not alleged facts sufficient to establish actual malice.”
Tarpley retracted the post and issued an apology Aug. 22, before the lawsuit was filed Sept. 1. The Daily Mail published its post on its website Aug. 19 and later issued a retraction Sept. 1.
In a Dec. 2 filing, attorneys for Trump said both articles were published “while the Daily Mail and Tarpley consciously doubted the truth of the claims in the articles, and [that they] acted with actual malice.” The filing says the articles caused “substantial damage” to Trump’s career, business, personal and professional reputation. Trump reportedly is requesting as much as $150 million in damages—although her attorneys note the extent of the financial damage she suffered will be the subject of expert testimony at a trial.
At a Dec. 12 scheduling hearing, at which Trump made a surprise appearance, Judge Sharon Burrell scheduled a Jan. 27 motions hearing and a 12-day jury trial in November.
U.S law has long held that public figures, a group that would include Trump, are held to a higher standard of proof than private citizens when claiming libel and defamation. Trump would have to prove the Daily Mail and Tarpley demonstrated “actual malice,” which means the paper and blogger would have to have knowingly published false information or published with a reckless disregard for whether the information was true or false.
The British tabloid says Trump can’t prove actual malice in the case, and also alleges the Montgomery court lacks jurisdiction. In a document filed Dec. 9, attorneys for the Daily Mail wrote they would file a motion asking that Judge Burrell dismiss the claims against the paper due to a lack of jurisdiction. The filing notes the published article in question described events that allegedly took place in New York and was not aimed at Maryland residents. In addition, the story was prepared by employees working in London, the filing says.
The document also claims the lawsuit was filed against one of the publication’s associated companies—Mail Media Inc. (MMI), which is based in New York—even though the post was published on the MailOnline website, which is published by Associated Newspapers Ltd. and based in the United Kingdom.
“The only connection between Maryland and this lawsuit is that the MailOnline website is accessible in Maryland, just as it is in every other state (and, indeed, every country in the world with open Internet access),” the document says. “Consequently, even if MMI was the publisher of MailOnline—which it is not—well-established principles of due process do not permit this court to exercise personal jurisdiction over a foreign company based on this tenuous connection.”
The Daily Mail filed the document as part of its attempt to prevent discovery in the case. Attorneys for the paper note that Trump’s attorneys have filed 76 document requests, which the paper claims is “overboard and unduly burdensome.” On Dec. 19, the paper filed the motion to dismiss.
The publication’s attorneys also claimed in previous filings that the post did not “assert provably false facts” about Trump and that the accusations were newsworthy.
“Here, [Trump] is unquestionably a public figure, and questions about her past—including her employment history, when she arrived in the United States, the legality of her early work in the U.S., and the activities she engaged in during her modeling career—are the subject of intense public interest and controversy,” the court document says. It notes the Daily Mail post included “emphatic denials” from the Trumps regarding the accusations.
Tarpley’s attorneys also attempted to have his case severed from the Daily Mail case, but Burrell denied the motion on Dec. 7.
Trump is represented by the Los Angeles firm of Charles Harder, the media lawyer who represented Hulk Hogan in the successful defamation lawsuit that caused the news and gossip website Gawker to cease publishing in August. The Daily Mail is represented by the firm Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, which has an office in Washington, D.C., and Tarpley is represented by John Owen of the Richmond, Virginia, firm Harman Claytor Corrigan & Wellman.