In an effort to intimidate the press into silence, president Donald Trump has instructed his lawyers to explore possible legal action against MSNBC’s Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Rachel Maddow, who released two pages from his 2005 personal income tax return.
Trump’s tax returns were published Tuesday by DCReport.org, a website operated by David Cay Johnston, who is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter. They were simultaneously aired on MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show.”
Legal experts say any case would be a long-shot given First Amendment protections for journalists and an important Supreme Court precedent that dates back to the famous 1971 “Pentagon Papers” case. Trump would also have to show that the journalists were complicit in stealing his tax returns—which both Johnston and Maddow have denied.
Fox Business Network reported that Trump believes Maddow may have broken federal privacy laws. But legal experts say prevailing in court would be the longest of long shots because the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects freedom of the press.
“Trump’s lawyers could try and sue but they will get the c**p kicked out of them in court,” veteran white collar attorney Stanley Arkin said
A Supreme Court precedent that dates back to the famous 1971 ‘Pentagon Papers’ case established that Trump could only win a court case if he could show the journalists were complicit in stealing his tax returns, not only responsible for publishing them.
Even before Rachel Maddow unveiled President Trump’s 2005 federal tax return live on MSNBC Tuesday night — which did take way too long — the White House claimed the document was being “illegally published.”
“It is totally illegal to steal and publish tax returns,” the White House added in a statement.
However, “publishing a tax return that just arrives — unsolicited — in your mailbox is protected by the First Amendment,” said David Cay Johnston, the journalist who obtained the document and shared it with Maddow.
Understanding that there could be at least some legal risk attendant to publication of Trump’s tax returns, New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet and Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward said at Harvard in September that they would be willing to do jail time, if that were the price to pay.
In October, the Times published the first page of Trump’s 1995 New York state resident income tax return, the first page of his New Jersey nonresident tax return and the first page of his Connecticut nonresident tax return. Like Johnston did Tuesday, Times reporter Susanne Craig said at the time that she found the tax documents in her mailbox.
After the Times published its story, the legal blog Concurring Opinions collected the views of 10 experts in First Amendment law, who concluded that the newspaper was likely on firm ground, so long as it did not participate in illegally accessing Trump’s tax documents. The same applies to Maddow and Johnston now.
MSNBC said in a statement that “there is no legal prohibition against journalists publishing these tax returns. It is protected by the First Amendment and Supreme Court precedent.”
The 2005 tax documents aired by MSNBC and published by Johnston showed that Trump earned $153 million in income in 2005 and paid $38 million in taxes.
Johnston says that the papers came to his home address in an envelope sent from Westchester, the county to the north of New York City, and that there was no return address. He even suggested that Trump could have leaked the document himself.
So, Mr. dictator wannabe, if you wanna get your a** kicked in court once again, go ahead. Sue Rachel Maddow. We dare you to.