The litigation candidate
Our view: Threatening to sue accusers only further damages Trump campaign
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.