According to a new, $150 million lawsuit filed by Melania Trump, the Daily Mail falsely claimed in an article last summer that the first lady used to be a sex worker. In reality, the London tabloid did no such thing. Trump's libel suit is based on an untruth.
Here is the exact wording in Trump's complaint, filed in New York Superior Court this week. (Trump previously sued the Daily Mail in Maryland, where she also sued a blogger who actually did accuse her of being a sex worker. A Montgomery County judge tossed out the case against the Daily Mail on jurisdictional grounds; Trump settled with the blogger.)
Mail online stated in the defamatory article at issue that plaintiff's well-publicized professional modeling career in the 1990s was a ruse and that she instead worked as an “elite escort” in the “sex business.”
That is a gross mischaracterization of a story that actually probed the escort allegation, originally published by Suzy magazine in Trump's native Slovenia, and concluded that “there is no evidence to back up these startling claims.” The Daily Mail's report arguably did more to repair Trump's reputation than to damage it.
I say “arguably” because it is entirely reasonable to second-guess the Daily Mail's decision to address the Suzy magazine report at all. The Slovenian publication is relatively obscure, and many Daily Mail readers probably had not heard of the escort claim until the British tabloid challenged it. You could argue that by treating the claim as worthy of investigation — and coverage — the Daily Mail lent it too much credence.
Indeed, mainstream news outlets in the United States generally decided that the most responsible course of action was to ignore Suzy's report, and the Daily Mail ultimately retracted its story after receiving a letter from Trump's attorney.
The Daily Mail might have made the wrong journalistic call, but it is objectively untrue to say — as the first lady's legal team does in the lawsuit — that the newspaper accused her of being a sex worker. The Daily Mail summarized and quoted from the Suzy report on Trump's work for a modeling agency run by Paolo Zampolli, then added this:
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 “f------ 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.
Moreover, the escort claim was one small part of a 2,400-word report in the Daily Mail on a valid question: Could rumors about Melania Trump — true or not — hurt her husband's bid for the White House? The story also mentioned a salacious book that “makes a number of unpleasant claims — such as one that a modeling agency Melania worked for in Milan before moving to New York was ‘something like a gentleman’s club.’ ”
“The claims are all unsubstantiated, and the Mail could find no trace of the book’s author, Adam Schlecter,” the Daily Mail reported. “It is quite possibly the work of an enemy of Trump — there are many. Yet the fact a book with such a title even exists must be an acute embarrassment to the Trumps.”
As it did with the Suzy article, the Daily Mail cast serious doubt on the book's claims. But it also noted that even false rumors can be politically damaging. That was the entire point of the story.