First Person

Trump’s many, many threats to sue the press since launching his campaign

October 3, 2016
Donald Trump speaks at a New Hampshire rally on July 16 2015. Photo by: Michael Vadon

Donald Trump’s outright contempt for journalists and press freedom is well known—but in the past month he has outdone himself.

In the span of a long weekend in mid-September, Trump threatened to sue The New York Times, his staff had a Vice reporter arrested outside a campaign event, and he blamed the New York terrorist bombings on “freedom of the press.”

This weekend, Trump struck again. After the Timeshuge scoop detailing how he took an almost billion-dollar loss on his 1995 taxes, Trump’s lawyer threatened “prompt initiation of appropriate legal action” against the Times once more. By my count, it is at least the 11th time Trump has threatened to sue a news organization or journalist during his campaign for president.

I had intended to quantify how many journalists or news commentators Trump has threatened to sue over his lifetime, but that quickly turned into a fool’s errand. A simple Google search of “Trump threatens to sue” will return an overwhelming number of stories. In the past decade alone, he’s sued a former Times journalist who wrote a book about him that he later admitted he didn’t even read; he’s threatened to sue former View host Rosie O’Donnell for allegations that have been shown over and over again during this campaign to be correct; he’s sued HBO’s Bill Maher over a joke bet that involved proving he was not, in fact, born an orangutan.

He threatened to sue a journalist at the Village Voice as far back as 1979, and he actually sued a newspaper as early as 1984: the Chicago Tribune, for calling building plans of his “aesthetically lousy.” My personal favorite was his threat to sue The Onion, the popular satirical news site.

This is a small sampling of the times in his career Trump has threatened to sue or actually sued journalists or news commentators, so I am limiting my count to news organizations or journalists he himself has threatened to sue based on stories they’ve written about him, or surrogates that have done so on his behalf during this campaign.

I had intended to quantify how many journalists or news commentators Trump has threatened to sue over his lifetime, but that quickly turned into a fool’s errand.

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I did not count the nine news organizations Melania Trump, the Republican candidate’s wife, also threatened to sue, nor the Daily Mail along with a small blogger, both of whom she actually sued in September for publishing stories containing rumors about her past.

Nor did I count when Trump threatened to sue an artist for creating a hilariously unflattering portrait of him, a conservative group called Club For Growth for running campaign ads that Trump did not like, former Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz for running negative ads against him, or former Republican presidential candidate John Kasich and a Super PAC supporting Kasich for the same–all of which would have serious First Amendment implications. Another time, he seemed to threaten Amazon founder Jeff Bezos with tax audits for owning The Washington Post, which has been critical of Trump. I’m not including this in my count either.

So which journalists and news organizations has Trump threatened to sue for things they’ve said or published about him since he started running for president in 2015?

Trump’s most famous statement on the subject came in February 2016, when he said he’s “going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money. We’re going to open up those libel laws. So when The New York Times writes a hit piece which is a total disgrace, or when The Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected.” But there were plenty more.

In a tweet on April 6, 2015, Trump wrote, “As dishonest as @RollingStone is I say @HuffingtonPost is worse. Neither has much money –  sue them and put them out of business!”

Soon after he entered the race in July 2015, Trump lawyer Michael Cohen threatened to sue The Daily Beast for running a story about rape allegations Trump’s then-wife Ivana Trump made against him in 1989. Cohen told Daily Beast reporters Tim Mak and Brandy Zadrozny, “I will take you for every penny you still don’t have. And I will come after your Daily Beast and everybody else that you possibly know,” adding: “So I’m warning you, tread very f—ing lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be f—ing disgusting.”

Just a few days later on July 2, the National Hispanic Media Coalition announced that Trump’s chief counsel was “threatening a lawsuit against NHMC” after the group issued a statement calling Trump’s remarks about Mexicans as a “bigoted, racist, anti-Latino rant.”

In January 2016, Trump threatened to sue The Washington Post over a story on how his casinos in Atlantic City filed for bankruptcy in the early 1990s, telling the Post “This was not personal. This was a corporate deal. If you write this one, I’m suing you.” The Post ran the story anyway.

On April 12, 2016, Eric Wemple reported that Trump threatened to sue the Associated Press over a story the news organization ran in October 2015 “about a movement by the directors of the Trump Ocean Club in Panama City to oust a management team installed by the Trump family.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Cay Johnston, author of the book The Making of Donald Trump, said Trump personally called him on April 27, 2016, and threatened to sue him “if he doesn’t like what I report.”

In an interview for The Washington Post’s book on Trump on May 18, 2016, he said, “I will be bringing more libel suits as people–maybe against you folks. I don’t want to threaten, but I find that the press is unbelievably dishonest.”

On July 20, 2016, The New Yorker reported that Trump had threatened to sue his former ghostwriter Tony Schwartz for “defamatory statements Schwartz made to New Yorker writer Jane Mayer about the book he “co-wrote” with Trump, The Art of the Deal. Schwartz claimed Trump didn’t write a word of it and that much of what was written was misleading or not true.

In mid-September, Trump threatened The New York Times in a tweet, saying, “My lawyers want to sue the failing @nytimes so badly for irresponsible intent. I said no (for now), but they are watching. Really disgusting.”

That was two weeks before The New York Times ran its story this weekend, accusing Trump of potentially skirting federal income taxes for more than a decade, which his lawyers promptly threatened to sue over, despite The New York Times clearly being protected by the First Amendment.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correctly identify Trump’s ex-wife who made rape allegations.

Trevor Timm is the executive director of Freedom of the Press Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports and defends journalism dedicated to transparency and accountability. He is also a twice-weekly columnist for the Guardian, where he writes about privacy, national security, and the media.