President Trump’s lawsuit (which has actually been filed by his family, but I think we can comfortably assume that it’s happening only because it’s what the president wants) is meant, like so many of the lawsuits he files, to be an assertion of power. But it will turn out to be just the opposite — a demonstration of his impotence as everything falls apart around him.
Mary Trump, a psychologist, is the daughter of the president’s late brother, Fred Trump Jr. Here’s how her publisher describes her book:
Mary Trump spent much of her childhood in her grandparents’ large, imposing house in the heart of Queens, where Donald and his four siblings grew up. She describes a nightmare of traumas, destructive relationships, and a tragic combination of neglect and abuse. She explains how specific events and general family patterns created the damaged man who currently occupies the Oval Office, including the strange and harmful relationship between Fred Trump and his two oldest sons, Fred Jr. and Donald.
If the president were able to look rationally at this situation, he’d simply ignore “Too Much and Never Enough.” It would be read almost entirely by people who don’t like him anyway, and it might not find its way into the national conversation in any meaningful way.
But as we know, Trump is petty, vindictive, and so desperately insecure that he is unable to let any slight go unanswered. So his family’s lawsuit asks the court to prevent publication on the grounds that, as part of a legal settlement over the inheritance from Fred Trump Sr., Mary Trump signed a nondisclosure agreement promising not to publicly discuss her relationship with President Trump and other family members. “She’s not allowed to write a book,” Trump told Axios.
But here’s the problem: The lawsuit asks for “prior restraint,” in which courts step in to prevent someone from exercising their free speech rights before they actually speak. As any first-year law student could tell you, the courts only allow prior restraint in extraordinary circumstances, when the damage being prevented is so enormous and irreparable that it overcomes the First Amendment.
Most famously, the Supreme Court refused to grant the government prior restraint in the 1971 Pentagon Papers case, even though it agreed that national security would be harmed by the papers’ publication.
But even more to the point, when Mary Trump signed her NDA, she didn’t actually sign away her right to tell her story. If it’s like other NDAs, including the ones President Trump forces nearly everyone within a mile of him to sign, it provides for some kind of penalty, so that Mary Trump would have to pay the other members of her family X dollars if she violates it.
And that penalty is President Trump’s only recourse. He can sue to force her to pay what the NDA specifies. What he can’t do, however, is get the courts to stop the book’s publication in the first place.
I suspect that at some point, someone has explained this to the president. But this would hardly be the first time he filed a frivolous lawsuit guaranteed to fail.
This is where Trump’s impotence becomes vivid. When he was a private citizen, he used lawsuits to intimidate, to annoy, to get out of obligations, and sometimes just on a whim. In 2016, USA Today reported that Trump had been involved in at least 3,500 lawsuits, a simply mind-boggling number.
But as has often been the case, a tactic he wielded effectively as a private citizen no longer works when he’s president of the United States and he tangles with people who either have ample legal resources of their own or have become wise to his modus operandi. When Trump sued some small business owner, he knew the person couldn’t afford the legal fight no matter the facts, so they’d probably settle. But that won’t work today.
Mary Trump obviously thought this through and decided to break her NDA to write her book, knowing that she’d probably have to pay whatever penalty she agreed to. And this isn’t the first time she has struck at her uncle by revealing what he’d like to keep hidden; we recently learned that she was the source behind the blockbuster 2018 New York Times report showing that Fred Trump and his children carried out a massive, multi-year tax fraud conspiracy that defrauded the federal government of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Here’s what will happen now. President Trump and his family will fail to suppress Mary Trump’s book, but their attempt to do so will turn it into a bestseller. It may still be only read by people who dislike the president, but it will probably garner much more media attention than it would have otherwise. When he sees his niece interviewed, Trump will lash out, bringing her even more attention. Her stories and allegations may deepen the sense most Americans now have that Trump is a corrupt narcissist.
Perhaps even more maddening to the president, the whole episode will show him to be weak and impotent, raging against the unfairness of a world that refuses to bend to his will and hurling ineffectual insults at all who dare to defy him. I have no idea if that’s part of what Mary Trump is after, but if it is, she’s already won.