Attorneys for President Donald Trump on Wednesday demanded that Lawrence O’Donnell and NBC Universal (NBCU) “retract, correct, and apologize” for claiming in a Tuesday evening report that Russian oligarchs co-signed Trump’s Deutsche Bank loans. The letter, written by Trump’s attorney Charles Harder, harshly condemned MSNBC’s reporting and threatens to sue O’Donnell and NBCU if the demands aren’t met within 24 hours. But legal experts were quick to point out the irony of Trump’s threat, noting that any lawsuit by Trump’s legal team would necessarily result in the underlying documents – Deutsche Bank records Trump’ has worked so hard to keep from the public eye – becoming part of discovery.
“These statements are false and defamatory, and extremely damaging,” Harder wrote. “The only borrowers under these loans are Trump entities, and Mr. Trump is the only guarantor. Numerous documents for each of these loans are also recorded, publicly available and searchable online.”
Harder also claimed that the report evinced a reckless disregard for the truth, thus enabling the President to show that O’Donnell and NBCU acted with the “actual malice” required in a defamation case.
“Thus, actual malice can easily be proven based on your reckless disregard of the truth and unreasonable reliance on an alleged ‘source’ who you will not even identify in your story and likely is seeking to mislead you and the public for political reasons or other ulterior motives,” the letter said.
The controversy began Tuesday evening, when O’Donnell tweeted that “A source close to Deutsche Bank says Trump’s tax returns show he pays very little income tax and, more importantly, that his loans have Russian co-signers. If true, that explains every kind word Trump has ever said about Russia and Putin.”
O’Donnell then opened his show by restating the claim, but was careful to repeatedly contextualize the report as being based on a single source and not yet proven true.
“I want to stress that is a single source, that has not been confirmed by NBC News, I have not seen any documentation from Deutsche Bank that supports this and verifies this… it’s going to require a lot more verification before that can be a confirmable fact,” O’Donnell said, reporting it anyway.
CNN legal analyst and former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti addressed the overall risk in pursuing defamation lawsuits, particularly where the truth of the matter may not be something a plaintiff wants to be public.
“Ordinarily these suits backfire because the person bringing the suit puts the truth of the underlying statement at issue, opening up discovery on the underlying issue, which often they do not want in the public eye,” Mariotti tweeted.
CNN analyst, lawyer and former FBI Special Agent Asha Rangappa addressed the irony head-on, outright stating that a defamation lawsuit would require turning over the Deutsche Bank records.
“Trump’s lawyers deny claims that he has Russian guarantors on his loans. Remember that if he proceeds with a defamation suit, the underlying documents would have to be made available in discovery,” Rangappa said.
While Trump’s legal team may be inclined to pursue a defamation suit against O’Donnell and NBCU, Harder’s threats could be taken with a grain of salt.
Following the New York Times bombshell 2018 report detailing Trump’s history of dubious tax-avoidance schemes, Harder took a similarly hard stance on behalf of President Trump.
“The New York Times’s allegations of fraud and tax evasion are 100 percent false, and highly defamatory,” Harder said. “There was no fraud or tax evasion by anyone. The facts upon which The Times bases its false allegations are extremely inaccurate.”
The Times stood by its reporting and no legal action was ever pursued.
O’Donnell now says he made an “error in judgment” by reporting the story and would address this on his Wednesday night show. It’s not clear at this time if that will include the retraction, correction and apology demanded.
Last night I made an error in judgment by reporting an item about the president’s finances that didn’t go through our rigorous verification and standards process. I shouldn’t have reported it and I was wrong to discuss it on the air. I will address the issue on my show tonight.
— Lawrence O'Donnell (@Lawrence) August 28, 2019
UPDATE: O’Donnell retracted the report and apologized.
“Last night on this show I discussed information that wasn’t ready for reporting. I did not go through the rigorous verification and standards process here at MSNBC before repeating what I heard from my source,” O’Donnell said. “Had it gone through that process I would not have been permitted to report it. I should not have said it on air or posted it on Twitter. I was wrong to do so.“
“Tonight we are retracting the story. We don‘t know whether the information is inaccurate. But the fact is, we do know it wasn‘t ready for broadcast, and for that I apologize,” he said.
[Image via Win McNamee/Getty Images]