The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump family relies on nemesis of free-speech advocates in legal battles

Charles Harder, President Trump's lawyer in the case against adult-film star Stormy Daniels, used to work quietly among celebrity clients. (Video: Jon Gerberg/The Washington Post, Photo: Nick Agro for The Post/The Washington Post)
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One of the most feared libel lawyers in America has emerged as the go-to attorney for the first family amid President Trump’s unrelenting and unprecedented battles with the media. 

In his first court case for the Trumps, Charles Harder negotiated a $2.9 million settlement from the Daily Mail over its false report in 2016 that Melania Trump had once worked as an escort. Then he made the unusual demand that a publisher cease distribution of a book, the White House exposé “Fire and Fury.” Now he is representing the president in two lawsuits brought by Stormy Daniels, the adult-film actress paid $130,000 before the 2016 election to keep quiet about an alleged affair with Trump. 

Hundreds of pages of documents Harder filed in court late Monday suggest a strategy to  undercut Daniels’s credibility and cast her as eager to profit off her claims.

Harder is best known for helping a Silicon Valley billionaire exact revenge against the gossip website Gawker with a lawsuit that led to the company’s demise. But winning in court is not always necessary to exact a toll on the media.

The legal website Above the Law once wrote of him, “If you’re looking for a lawyer to bring a publication to its knees, Harder’s the leader in the clubhouse.”

Press advocates say that as Trump seeks to undermine the media as “fake news,”  the “Gawker effect” is discouraging newsrooms from publishing negative stories about potentially litigious public figures. Prominent media lawyer Bruce Sanford called Harder, 48, one of a “new breed of libel plaintiffs lawyers . . . sending chills down the spines of media companies.”

“Not unlike the president,” Sanford added, “I think Harder has figured out how to mine the public’s resentment toward certain journalistic practices that it dislikes.” 

Harder refused to talk about his legal work for the president and declined repeated requests for interviews. He eventually agreed to answer written questions for this story about his background and legal philosophy.

He rejected the idea that the $140 million judgment against Gawker — which had aired a sex tape of wrestler Hulk Hogan — has dampened reporters’ appetite for damaging stories about public figures. He said, however, there appear to be fewer sex tapes online. “Media companies don’t seem to post videos like that any more — a positive ‘chilling effect,’ I would say,” Harder said.

Trump administration considering potential changes to libel law.

The Gawker litigation minted Harder as a media giant-slayer at the same time Trump was campaigning to “open up” libel laws, a pledge he has not fulfilled. Ryan Holiday, author of a book about the Gawker case called “Conspiracy,” said, “Charles is a very ambitious, aggressive attorney who clearly proved he can win cases that most people don’t think he can win. That makes him very attractive.”

After suing the Daily Mail on behalf of Melania Trump, just weeks before the 2016 election, Harder threatened in a letter to sue People magazine after a reporter claimed in an article that Donald Trump had forcibly kissed her at his Palm Beach home. In the article, the reporter also said she later ran into Trump’s wife in New York City.

Melania Trump denied the encounter with the reporter and Harder called for “a prominent retraction and apology.” The magazine rejected the demand as roughly a dozen women in the homestretch of the presidential campaign came forward with accusations of sexual misconduct by Donald Trump.

After the election, Harder again emerged as the family spokesman, insisting that YouTube remove a video that suggested the Trumps’ son, Barron, was autistic. The video was removed.

When word surfaced early this year of unflattering observations about Trump and his family in Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury,” the president was eager to engage the lawyer hailed by aides as someone you hire to “crush the media,” a White House official said at the time

Harder tried to halt publication of the book with an 11-page cease-and-desist letter to publisher Henry Holt and Co. The effort backfired: The publisher released the book early as publicity drove it to the top of bestseller lists. 

In her response to Harder, a lawyer for the publisher, Elizabeth McNamara, said he failed to identify any false or defamatory statements in the book. “Instead, the letter appears to be designed to silence legitimate criticism,” McNamara wrote.

In March, Harder emerged as counsel of record for Trump in the Stormy Daniels case. Daniels has sued in California to revoke her non-disclosure agreement and, in a separate suit in New York, has accused Trump of defamation. Harder is not defending Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, who is also a defendant in the California lawsuit. 

Unlike Daniels’s attorney, Michael Avenatti, who has become a fixture on cable television, Harder keeps a low profile — so low that one lawyer friend Harder offered as a reference wasn’t even aware he was representing the president in the Daniels case. The reserved, apolitical Harder also contrasts with his bombastic client and Trump advisers such as Rudolph W. Giuliani, who has publicly savaged Daniels as having “no reputation” because of her chosen profession.

A federal judge in New York seemed to vindicate Harder’s quieter approach when she reprimanded Avenatti in May for conducting a “publicity tour.” That led the porn star’s lawyer to withdraw his request to intervene in a dispute over records seized in a federal investigation of Cohen.

Harder has not given a single television interview about Daniels. But in court documents filed Monday in the defamation case, Harder hinted he would pursue a strategy not unlike Giuliani’s efforts to question Daniels’s trustworthiness. Harder submitted media reports about Daniels’s conflicting accounts of the alleged affair and efforts to sell her story to the highest bidder. Harder also identified three witnesses that he said may contradict the porn star’s claims that she was threatened for telling her story and coerced into denying a relationship with Trump.

Avenatti responded with a written statement Tuesday, saying: “The Liar in Chief and his counsel attempting to undermine my client's credibility would be laughable if it wasn't so pathetic and transparent.”

It’s unclear how Harder is being compensated for his work for Trump. He received $115,600 in the first six months of 2018 for “legal consulting” from Trump’s reelection campaign. Harder would not describe what the payments were for or answer questions about whether he was being paid for Trump work from other sources. He said he is not advising Trump on the Russia probe.

A native Californian who received his law degree from Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, Harder was a registered Democrat who donated $500 to Barack Obama in 2008 and voted in the 2016 Democratic primary, records show. In December 2016, after Trump’s election, he changed his party affiliation to nonpartisan. He would not comment on the switch but noted he donated to Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger’s California gubernatorial campaign in 2003.

“I have been an independent voter for more than 15 years — voting for both Republicans and Democrats, and donating to both as well,” Harder told The Post in an email. “I support the best person for the job; party affiliation is not important to me.”

He would not say who he voted for in 2016. 

Although Harder is not active politically, his Twitter feed suggests he is at odds with the president on some key issues. “It’s about time,” he said in late February, posting an article about Florida high school students leading the charge for gun control. “WTF?” he commented on an article detailing the deportation of a Detroit man who was brought to the United States as a child and had no criminal record. 

Last month, Harder retweeted the new owner of the Los Angeles Times, who said, “Fake news is the cancer of our times.”

Harder works out of art-adorned offices on swanky Rodeo Drive but said he forgoes hobnobbing with celebrities to spend time driving his two children around in a 14-year-old Lexus. He plays tennis, guitar and participates in a Fantasy Football league. “I honestly lead a boring life,” he said.

Harder spent years filing little-noticed lawsuits against furniture companies and jewelry vendors for appropriating the names and images of celebrities ranging from Reese Witherspoon to Clint Eastwood. Then he and a team of lawyers from Texas and Florida took on Gawker Media. 

The website had publicized a tape of Hogan having sex with the wife of his friend Bubba “The Love Sponge” Clem. Harder took the invasion-of-privacy case to state court in the county next to the wrestler’s home town of Tampa. Local counsel handled most of the trial work, casting Gawker as part of the media elite, noting its Fifth Avenue, New York City headquarters — an awkward argument for a Beverly Hills lawyer like Harder. They asked for $100 million in damages.

The jury awarded $140 million. 

Months later, a secret came out:  The battle against Gawker had been financed by billionaire Peter Thiel, whom the website had previously outed as gay. Gawker filed for bankruptcy after it was unable to afford an appeal of the judgment, unnerving a media establishment that feared broader implications for mainstream journalism.

“The practical lesson from the Gawker case is that an individual with enough means can sue a news organization, or frankly an individual journalist, into nonexistence,” said Katie Townsend, of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “Harder’s clients are in general celebrities or very wealthy people, or the  president of the United States and the first lady of the United States.’’ 

Breaking with a long-standing article of faith among First Amendment advocates, Harder favors lowering the Supreme Court’s bar for winning libel lawsuits, which says public figures must show a journalist acted with “actual malice,” printing errors on purpose or with reckless disregard for the truth. In his responses to The Post, he suggests a “quick and cheap way for people defamed to have the facts reviewed by a neutral party, determined what is true, and the article promptly corrected.” If someone is harmed by a false statement, they should have a “streamlined and efficient” way to collect damages, he wrote.

His hard-nosed tactics have led to some defeats, three in the past year. 

A Massachusetts federal judge threw out a lawsuit he brought on behalf of an MIT-trained entrepreneur  who claimed to have invented email. The judge said the stories by the website TechDirt challenging those claims could not be proved false and amounted to speech protected by the First Amendment. 

TechDirt editor Michael Masnick declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation. But he has written and spoken previously about how much it costs media organizations — in time, energy and money — to fight lawsuits.

“A case like this is extremely draining — especially on an emotional level — and can create massive chilling effects on free speech,” he wrote in September, when TechDirt prevailed in court.

That same week, a New Hampshire federal judge dismissed a defamation claim filed by Harder on behalf of a securities firm and its executive against a financial website called The Deal. The web site said the suit was aimed at coercing its reporter to reveal a confidential source. Harder appealed that decision and lost in April.

In December 2017, a U.S. bankruptcy judge dismissed Harder’s lawsuit over a hard-hitting profile in Deadspin, a former Gawker Media blog, about the founder of a website that gives betting advice to gamblers. A spokesman for Gawker’s post-bankruptcy successor, Gizmodo Media Group, called the lawsuit an attempt “to chill strong investigative reporting through personal attacks and intimidation of journalists.”

A lawsuit against the freelance journalist who wrote the Deadspin profile is pending.

Harder defended his tactics. “We don’t pressure people — reporters or otherwise,” he said in his answers to The Post. “We litigate cases fairly and in 100 percent compliance with all laws and ethical rules.”

 Harder also has challenged investigative stories about the treatment of women by powerful men.

In 2017, Harder vowed to sue the New York Times when it published allegations of sexual misconduct by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Harder said in a statement that the October 2017 article — part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning series that helped launch the #MeToo movement — was “saturated with false and defamatory statements.”

Harder said he dropped Weinstein as a client five days later. He declined to comment further on Weinstein, or on his threat of a defamation claim against New York magazine for publishing allegations of sexual harassment by former Fox News chairman Roger Ailes.  

Harder is representing pro bono one of Bill Cosby’s accusers, an alleged rape victim with a defamation claim before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Attorney Doug Mirell said Harder’s efforts on behalf of Weinstein and Trump led him earlier this year to leave the law firm they co-founded in 2013. Mirell said that after the Gawker case, “I became concerned that this could lead to threats or litigation against prominent mainstream media outlets. Once those concerns were realized in Charles’s representation of Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump, a parting of the ways became inevitable.”

Harder said Mirell had “a smile on his face” when the firm represented clients suing media companies.

The Gawker case continues to have a ripple effect. 

Music critic Jim DeRogatis spent months reporting a story about R&B singer R. Kelly, who allegedly held women in an abusive “cult.” Three publications were interested in the story but changed course at the last minute, DeRogatis told The Post last year. He said the Gawker case came up repeatedly in those discussions. Kelly has denied the allegations.

And journalist Kim Masters blamed the “Gawker effect” for deterring several media organizations from publishing her exposé on alleged sexual harassment by Amazon Studios head Roy Price — a charge those organizations denied. Masters’s story was ultimately published on the website The Information in August 2017. Price resigned two months later.

“We seem to be at a point when the wealthy feel emboldened to try to silence reporters by threatening litigation even if they stand virtually no chance of winning,” Masters wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review. She said of the lawyers who vetted her story, “their usual caution seemed to have turned into very real fear.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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