Three months ago, a 70-year-old political blogger operating from his Maryland townhouse let it rip.
“Where is Melania Trump?” he asked, going on to offer an answer: The potential first lady was reportedly having a nervous breakdown after her controversial GOP convention speech and her fears that a secret past would be revealed.
“It is also widely known that Melania was not a working model but rather a high end escort,” wrote Webster Tarpley in a blog post that would come to be quoted in court filings. Tarpley, a Princeton University graduate, has also asserted that President Obama is a puppet of Wall Street and that the 9/11 attacks were a “false-flag” operation.
Tarpley’s claims about Melania Trump, posted in the heat of the campaign, were followed by similar allegations published in the Daily Mail, a British tabloid. Both pieces attracted the attention of Melania Trump and her attorneys, and both publications posted retractions.
On Sept. 1, in Montgomery County Circuit Court, Melania Trump sued Tarpley and the Daily Mail for defamation. Her attorneys cited a series of published allegations, including those made in Tarpley’s blog post, according to court records. Now, as Melania Trump readies to become first lady, the lawsuit shows no signs of slowing down.
“These are some of the most inflammatory allegations possible,” her attorneys wrote in their most recent filing. “Tarpley acted with reckless disregard for the truth.”
Tarpley declined to comment for this article.
His neighbor, Sam Rosenbloom, said Thursday that he has known Tarpley for more than 10 years and described him as a pleasant person.
“Clearly, political history is never far from his thoughts,” said Rosenbloom, a Trump supporter who recently spray-painted “Make America Great Again” on the back of his own silver SUV.
“I don’t think he thought what he wrote would be so hurtful,” Rosenbloom said of Tarpley’s blog post. “And obviously, he wasn’t sensitive to the reach of Donald Trump.”
In a statement to The Washington Post, one of Tarpley’s attorneys, John Owen, said: “Mr. Tarpley is a political blogger who desires to engage his readers in a meaningful discourse on matters of public significance. In this instance, he shared information that was available on other media outlets, as he felt it important that there be a public dialogue regarding the rumored background of the prospective First Lady of the United States.”
Charles Harder, an attorney for Melania Trump, declined to comment Friday.
According to documents filed so far, the case could turn on the question of how far a publication can advance claims that it does not know to be true.
Tarpley has addressed the matter on his blog, saying he did not defame Melania Trump and he had simply passed on rumors and innuendo of others in his Aug. 2 “Morning Briefing” post.
“While the tarpley.net editors, writers and contributors did not generate said rumors, the briefing in question was not diligent in fact-checking or maintaining a healthy distance between innuendo and fact,” Tarpley wrote in his retraction and apology.
But on that stance, Melania Trump, through her attorneys, said that when read as a whole, Tarpley’s Aug. 2 posting asserted a series of bogus claims as fact.
This is how the blog post began:
“Where is Melania Trump? This question is being asked in elite parties at the roped-off clubs in Manhattan’s meatpacking district and other haunts of the gotham financier class. It is widely known among the jet set crowd that Melania never wanted Donald to run for president.”
It was then that Tarpley wrote, without attribution, that it was “widely known” that Melania Trump had once worked as a “high end escort.”
As the 29-paragraph post continued, Tarpley offered what he said were various sources for his information that included “unconfirmed reports,” “a knowledgable observer” and allegations “scattered across the internet.”
Tarpley’s attorneys, in court papers filed last month, asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit, saying Tarpley wasn’t necessarily advancing the assertions as truth.
“A pure expression of opinion is protected because it fails to assert an actual fact,” attorney Danielle D. Giroux wrote. “Likewise, rhetorical hyperbole might appear to make an assertion, but a reasonable reader or listener would not construe that assertion seriously.”
Tarpley’s attorneys also took issue with eight specific passages that the Trump side said were false and defamatory. None of those statements, Tarpley’s lawyers wrote, accused Melania Trump of committing a crime, having a disease or “engaging in conduct, characteristics or a condition that would adversely affect her fitness for the proper conduct of her lawful business, trade or profession.”
In response, Melania Trump’s attorneys said the matter should proceed to trial, because the blog post involved more direct assertions than opinion or hyperbole.
“Publishing, or republishing, defamatory allegations which, in addition to being false, clearly have no basis other than as unsubstantiated rumor, and doing so without even checking the veracity of the information,” they wrote, “easily clears the threshold of reckless disregard for the truth.”
The lawyers also said the allegations were damaging.
“Tarpley has the audacity to argue that calling someone a prostitute who had a mental breakdown does not constitute defamation as a matter of law and that such a complaint can be dismissed at the pleading stage. To state this argument is to refute it,” wrote attorneys Harder and Donna E. McBride.
The Montgomery Circuit Judge assigned to the case, Sharon Burrell, has yet to rule on the motions.