The lit­i­ga­tion can­di­date

Our view: Threat­en­ing to sue ac­cusers only fur­ther dam­ages Trump campaign

Baltimore Sun - - MARYLAND VOICES -

Rich peo­ple threaten law­suits. It’s what they do. They have teams of high-priced lawyers at their beck and call. It’s like car­ry­ing around a loaded weapon and an itchy trig­ger fin­ger — things are bound to hap­pen. And why not? It of­ten serves their fi­nan­cial in­ter­ests. When the deep-pock­eted make threats of le­gal action against or­di­nary folks who don’t have coun­sel at the ready, it tends to have a chill­ing ef­fect on them.

So at some level, it should come as no sur­prise that Don­ald Trump —who, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est USA To­day count, has been a party to 4,090 le­gal fil­ings (not count­ing merely threat­ened lit­i­ga­tion) — de­cided that in his own Get­tys­burg ad­dress, a speech in­tended to fo­cus on heal­ing the coun­try’s di­vi­sions, he would prom­ise to sue the women who have ac­cused him of sex­ual mis­con­duct.

But here’s the prob­lem: Can­di­dates for pres­i­dent don’t threaten law­suits. That’s not to sug­gest they don’t have a right to sue. They do. Can­di­dates don’t set aside their le­gal rights when they file for pub­lic of­fice. But run­ning for pres­i­dent in­volves, in it­self, a kind of pub­lic ex­am­i­na­tion of can­di­dates and of­ten of their crit­ics, too, that is not un­like what hap­pens in court. In­stead of a judge or jury, it’s the elec­torate that gets to de­cide the mer­its of the case. In 2016, it’s Clin­ton v. Trump in the court of pub­lic opin­ion.

Barack Obama didn’t sue Mr. Trump for defama­tion when he made out­ra­geous birther claims. He might even have won, given the facts of the case and the mal­ice Mr. Trump dis­played, but prob­a­bly not. In this coun­try, pub­lic fig­ures must meet a very high stan­dard to suc­ceed in a defama­tion suit. Given Mr. Trump’s own words caught on tape — his now-in­fa­mous chat with Billy Bush in which he bragged about sex­u­ally as­sault­ing women— it’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine how any court would ever award him dam­ages.

But let’s say Mr. Trump is, as he claims, not guilty of some or all of the de­spi­ca­ble be­hav­ior of which he has been ac­cused (as dif­fi­cult as that is to be­lieve). Again, why threaten the law­suit? It’s clearly not go­ing to scare his ac­cusers, who surely an­tic­i­pated this be­hav­ior. (It is per­haps one of the rea­sons they didn’t step for­ward ear­lier.) In­deed, on Satur­day as Mr. Trump was promis­ing lit­i­ga­tion in Penn­syl­va­nia, yet an­other woman — Jes­sica Drake, an adult film star rep­re­sented by none other than women’s rights at­tor­ney Glo­ria Allred — was step­ping for­ward in Los An­ge­les with new al­le­ga­tion that the can­di­date ha­rassed her.

Here’s the only real ef­fect the threat has — for Mr. Trump, it gives him some­thing to storm and rage and act in­dig­nant about (even if it mis­guid­edly re­fo­cuses pub­lic at­ten­tion on a sub­ject that does not en­hance his ef­fort to de­feat Hil­lary Clin­ton at the polls in two weeks). But one other con­se­quence, whether in­ten­tional or not, is to un­der­score how much Mr. Trump and his fol­low­ers ap­pear to have de­clared a war on women on al­most ev­ery level imag­in­able.

Dis­parag­ing women’s looks (whether they are fel­low can­di­dates or ac­cusers), call­ing them “pigs” and “dogs,” fat-sham­ing them and blam­ing them for the past sex­ual in­dis­cre­tions of their hus­bands are not the ways in which a can­di­date for pres­i­dent in­spires con­fi­dence in vot­ers with two X chro­mo­somes. Mr. Trump and his min­ions have been given ev­ery op­por­tu­nity, in­clud­ing by the army of re­porters who chron­i­cle his ev­ery move, to pro­vide ev­i­dence that he has been wronged, but what’s been pre­sented to date (de­spite prom­ises that it would set the record straight) has sim­ply not been com­pelling.

Real pres­i­dents don’t threaten to sue their crit­ics. They ei­ther rise above such charges or dis­prove them. The orig­i­nal Get­tys­burg or­a­tor, Abra­ham Lin­coln, was called a go­rilla, an im­be­cile, a laugh­ing­stock, a “sim­ple Su­san” and a “per­son of very in­fe­rior cast of char­ac­ter, wholly un­equal to the cri­sis.” He didn’t sue; he rose to great­ness.

All of which leaves 21st-cen­tury Repub­li­can vot­ers in a painful po­si­tion. Those who be­lieve in what used to be re­garded as bedrock GOP prin­ci­ples, in­clud­ing a be­lief in tra­di­tional moral­ity, can sup­port Don­ald Trump and ei­ther over­look or not be­lieve his ac­cusers (or per­haps view the nom­i­nee as the lesser of two evils on the bal­lot). Or they can do what a grow­ing num­ber of Repub­li­can of­fice­hold­ers are do­ing — with­draw their sup­port for him and send a mes­sage to the blus­ter­ing bil­lion­aire and to the rest of the party of Lin­coln that the days of misog­yny are over.

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