The life of a first lady, as told by tabloid newspapers, is a strange and dramatic one, spelled out in screeching fonts and accompanied by doctored photographs.
If the papers that line supermarket checkout lanes are to be believed, previous first ladies have: adopted a space-alien baby; attacked the president and left “claw marks” on his cheek; snuck out of the White House at night for trysts with a secret-agent boyfriend. Gained 95 pounds. Had liposuction. Carried on an affair with an alien named P’Lod.
But there’s one thing that no first lady — until Melania Trump — has done in response to wildly negative and untruthful stories: Sued a publication.
Trump has won settlements against three outlets for “false statements” made during her husband’s time in the White House. Her litigious strategy tracks with her willingness to push back on her critics by issuing harsh public statements.
This weekend, the British paper the Telegraph apologized and agreed to pay “substantial damages” after retracting a story that claimed, among other unflattering things, the former model’s career had been struggling until she met Donald Trump.
That follows the first lady’s $2.9 million settlement with the Daily Mail over its false report in 2016 that she had worked as an escort and an unspecified settlement in 2017 with a Maryland blogger who reported similar unfounded rumors and also was forced to retract a post that Trump may have suffered a nervous breakdown after her speech at the Republican National Convention.
And the list could grow. “First lady Melania Trump will continue to enforce her rights against reckless writers, reporters, editors and publishers who make false statements about her,” said her attorney, Charles Harder, who has represented several high-profile clients, including wrestler Hulk Hogan, who won a $140 million invasion-of-privacy verdict against the gossip website Gawker.
In other words, when they go low, Melania Trump calls her lawyers.
Myra Gutin, a professor at Rider University who studies first ladies, says Trump’s willingness to engage in legal battles is unprecedented. “Every first lady came to this role, I’m sure, expecting there would be a certain level of scrutiny, and tabloid reports that they probably weren’t going to like,” she said. “Some I’m sure were hurtful, but there was no legal action.”
Media law experts say most public officials — and by extension, their spouses — opt against lawsuits. They worry that attention from legal action would result in more readership for the specious stories.
“There’s a danger that you just give more attention to the thing that you objected to,” said June Besek, executive director of the Kernochan Center for Law, Media and the Arts at Columbia Law School.
Sonja West, a professor of First Amendment law at the University of Georgia Law School, added that many public figures accept unflattering and inaccurate coverage as a given.
“There’s a sense that it’s part of the game,” she said. By running for office, “you are opening yourself up to public criticism, so you figure you just need to take your hits and do your job.”
Melania Trump, though, appears to have adopted the same playbook her husband used for decades. Donald Trump has filed hundreds of lawsuits, including a handful of defamation claims.
“He has a long history of filing defamation lawsuits that he rarely wins as a strategy,” West said. “For him, the goal isn’t to win in the courthouse — it lets them make a very public demonstration that they object to whatever the statement was and they can cast doubt in the public’s mind about whether they can trust the publication.”
Melania Trump’s spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, said the first lady wants to set the record straight. “Her reasoning is pretty simple — she won’t stand for people printing lies about her,” she said. “It’s irresponsible and reckless, and media outlets should be held accountable when they choose profit over the truth.”
The story that the Telegraph apologized for this weekend was a Jan. 19 excerpt from Nina Burleigh’s book “Golden Handcuffs: The Secret History of Trump’s Women,” which was published in October by Simon & Schuster. The Telegraph on Saturday wrote that “the article contained a number of false statements which we accept should not have been published.”
Media laws in the United Kingdom make it easier for public figures to win libel and defamation suits. Neither Burleigh nor Simon & Schuster were sued, and the author’s attorney sent a letter Wednesday to the Telegraph pushing back on the retraction and arguing that Burleigh’s article was “well-sourced,” “fact checked,” and “benign.”
In her media litigation, Melania Trump is represented by Harder, the same attorney who represents her husband in his legal battle with Stormy Daniels, the adult-film star. Harder pursued legal action against the Daily Mail on Melania Trump’s behalf in Maryland, New York, and the United Kingdom. In the lawsuit filed in New York, he claimed that the tabloid accusations had damaged Melania Trump’s chances to capitalize on “multimillion dollar business relationships” at a time when she was “one of the most photographed women in the world.”
But the lawsuits are about more than just protecting the first lady’s brand, said Vanity Fair writer Emily Jane Fox, who devoted a section of her book, “Born Trump,” to the former model.
“She is a fighter, and she does not let things go,” she said.
Legal action against media companies are also a way for Trump to influence the narrative that surrounds her. As first lady, “she doesn’t have a tremendous amount of control in her life. This is not the life she signed up for or the life she wished to live, and from a human perspective, a lawsuit seems the only way to take some control over her situation, over what people are saying about her or how they are scrutinizing her,” Fox said.
Melania Trump has complained about media coverage in the handful of interviews she’s given since her husband took office. In December, Sean Hannity, a close ally of her husband’s, asked whether she felt injured by what she described as “opportunists” using her family’s name for their own gain.“It doesn’t hurt,” she said. “The problem is they’re writing the history, and it’s not correct.”