President Donald Trump’s repeated suggestion that media critic Joe Scarborough killed an aide is not only shocking to many Americans and even members of his own party, it could end up costing him a fortune if he’s sued over the hurtful comments, warned a legal expert.
For all of Trump’s past vicious insults against opponents and critics, this time his “wantonly cruel attacks” are “distinctive,” Yale emeritus law professor Peter H. Schuck wrote Thursday in an op-ed in The New York Times. His Scarborough attacks “may constitute intentional torts for which a civil jury could award punitive damages against him” — and he could be sued for his actions while still in the White House, Schuck warned.
Trump has repeatedly indicated on Twitter that Scarborough, co-host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” had something to do with the 2001 death of staffer Lori Klausutis, who worked in his Florida office when he was a Republican congressman.
“The president has offered no evidence for this slander, because there is none,” wrote Schuck. “He has not cited any evidence to support his calumny either before the tweets or in response to the backlash since then.”
The medical examiner ruled the death an accident, determining that Klausutis suffered a fatal head injury after fainting due to an undiagnosed heart condition. Her widower, Timothy Klausutis, earlier this week pleaded in a letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to remove Trump’s “horrifying lies” that were causing her family pain.
The president is now vulnerable to court actions for “intentional infliction of emotional distress, which the courts developed precisely to condemn wanton cruelty to another person who suffers emotionally as a result,” noted Schuck. This “readily applies to Mr. Trump’s tweets about Ms. Klausutis. They were intentional and reckless, and were ‘extreme and outrageous’ without a scintilla of evidence to support them. And they caused severe emotional distress — the protracted, daily-felt grief described in Mr. Klausutis’s letter.”
Scarborough may have less of a claim than Klausutis’s widower of emotional distress because the cable news host has largely dismissed the attacks as typical Trump behavior, noted Schuck. But he may have grounds to sue for defamation because Trump’s attacks may “seriously harm” Scarborough’s reputation, according to Schuck.
Because of a 1998 ruling in favor of Paula Jones in her sexual harassment suit against President Bill Clinton, lawsuits by both Klausutis and Scarborough “could proceed” against Trump “while he is still in office,” wrote Schuck.
Suits could likely be brought in any state — and because the tweets had nothing to do with Trump’s “presidential responsibilities, he probably could not hide behind an assertion of executive privilege,” noted Schuck.
The Klausutis family has suffered enough .. without having to endure Mr. Trump’s ... malicious raking of the coals,” Schuck concluded. “Tort law might hold our brutish president to account.”