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The story behind Melania Trump’s lawsuit against the Daily Mail

Donald Trump introduced his wife, Melania, at last month's Republican National Convention in Cleveland. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

We wrote in August about Melania Trump's threat to sue the Daily Mail. Since then, she has filed a $150 million lawsuit against the British tabloid, which she referenced in interviews on CNN and Fox News Monday. 

"The lie was that I was working as an escort," Trump told Fox News' Ainsley Earhardt. She added that "you cannot just write lies about anybody because then they could write anything what they want without checking the facts."

This is a favorite Trump campaign narrative — the media prints lies and doesn't fact-check — but Melania Trump's characterization of the Daily Mail's report does not square with what actually happened. In reality, the Daily Mail did some fact-checking and found reason to doubt the claim that Melania Trump worked as an escort, which had originally been published in a Slovenian magazine. 

The original post follows.

Donald Trump has hired the lawyer who helped Hulk Hogan win an invasion-of-privacy case against Gawker and given him a new mission: threaten legal action against several media outlets that picked up a Slovenian magazine's report claiming that Melania Trump worked as an escort in the 1990s.

The website Liberal America on Monday posted a letter it received from Hollywood attorney Charles Harder demanding a retraction and an apology. Politico reported that at least three other news organizations, including London's Daily Mail, received the same notice, which warns that Melania Trump will "institute immediate legal proceedings against you" if her conditions are not met.

The original report, published in Suzy magazine, claims, without offering evidence, that a New York modeling agency for which Trump worked doubled as a high-end escort service and that Trump was paid for sex — a charge she forcefully denied through Harder. Liberal America complied with the demands of the letter ("I don't have enough money to fight a legal battle against the Trump machine," reporter Andrew Bradford wrote), as did the websites Inquisitr and Bipartisan Report.

The Daily Mail had not issued a retraction as of Monday evening. It appears to be in a different position, having mentioned the Suzy report only briefly in a broader article about Melania Trump. What's more, the Daily Mail article is skeptical of the escort claim:

Earlier this month, a Slovenian magazine, Suzy, published a front page story claiming Melania’s modelling agency in New York, run by New York entrepreneur, Paolo Zampolli, also operated as an escort agency for wealthy clients. . . .
This week, the Mail spoke to the author of the piece, under the condition of anonymity. He insisted the seemingly fantastical story was correct, but all he would say to corroborate it was the information came from sources in America.
Mr Zampolli, however, was very clear. He told the Mail the allegations were "[expletive] rubbish." "My agency was never an escort agency. . . . Come on," he said.
There is no evidence to back up these startling claims made in Suzy magazine.

The Daily Mail article has been updated several times, including one update made 44 minutes after its initial publication. It is unclear, based on Internet archives, whether the skeptical language was in the original posting or was added later. The Fix has asked the author, Natalie Clarke, to clarify.

Harder's work for Hogan was funded by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Thiel, who has had a personal vendetta against Gawker since the site outed him as gay in 2007. Harder also sent a letter to Gawker in June objecting to a story that suggested Donald Trump's hair might be artificial, though he identified his client not as Trump but rather as the man whom Gawker identified as the Republican presidential nominee's follicle fabricator.

As we've noted before here at The Fix, publishers of sex tapes (in Hogan's case) and unfounded claims of sex work (in Melania Trump's) are not very sympathetic figures. But the broader implications for the media are alarming.

At a rally in Fort Worth, Tex., Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said he will change libel laws if he wins the presidency in 2016. (Video: Reuters)

Trump has vowed to "open up" libel laws to make it easier to sue media companies that print negative stories about public figures such as himself, even if they are true. Right now, it is difficult for public figures to win libel cases — in the United States anyway. Proving a news outlet got a story wrong is not enough; Trump would have to show that journalists knowingly published a false story or acted with reckless disregard for the truth.

But the point of suing is not always to win. If Trump and fellow billionaires like Thiel are willing to bankroll lawsuits against news outlets — or at least threaten to do so — they could have a chilling effect on the press.

What Donald Trump is doing on the campaign trail

MANCHESTER, NH - NOVEMBER 7: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at SNHU Arena in Manchester, NH on Monday November 07, 2016. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)