NEW YORK — The New York Times’ general counsel has just informed Donald Trump’s lawyer, in scathing terms, that it will not retract its story about two women who claim that Trump touched them inappropriately.
In a letter to Trump attorney Marc E. Kasowitz sent Thursday, New York Times general counsel David McCraw wrote, of the request that the Times retract the story, “We decline to do so.”
McCraw then laid into Kasowitz and his client, writing, “The essence of a libel claim, of course, is the protection of one’s reputation. Mr. Trump has bragged about his non-consensual sexual touching of women. He has bragged about intruding on beauty pageant contestants in their dressing rooms. He acquiesced to a radio host’s request to discuss Mr. Trump’s own daughter as a ‘piece of ass.’ Multiple women not mentioned in our article have publicly come forward to report on Mr. Trump’s unwanted advances.”
He continued: “Nothing in our article has had the slightest effect on the reputation that Mr. Trump, through his own words and actions, has already created for himself.”
Times sources told CNNMoney there were spontaneous bursts of applause for McCraw when he walked through the paper’s newsroom on Thursday afternoon.
Trump said at a Thursday afternoon rally in Florida that “we are preparing” a suit against The Times.
Nothing has been filed yet. “Lawyers are doing the due diligence needed to file such a massive suit,” a Trump campaign official said on condition of anonymity.
Legal experts have doubts that Trump will actually file such a suit.
The Times story featured two women, Jessica Leeds and Rachel Crooks, who said that Trump made inappropriate physical advances on them. CNN has not been able to independently confirm their accounts.
When Times reporter Megan Twohey interviewed Trump by phone Tuesday night, “he threatened to sue us if we published these allegations,” Twohey told CNNMoney. She quoted Trump as saying that “none of this ever took place.” She said Trump shouted at her and called her “a disgusting human being.”
Twohey also received a legal letter from a Trump attorney Wednesday afternoon. The Times published the story online shortly before 7 p.m. Eastern.
“I think it is pretty evident this story falls clearly in the realm of public service journalism, and discussing issues that arose from the tape and his comments since it surfaced,” Times executive editor Dean Baquet told CNNMoney.
The legal threats continued Wednesday night. “NYT editors, reporters, politically motivated accusers better lawyer up,” a Trump campaign official said.
Shortly after midnight Thursday, a lawyer representing Trump, Marc E. Kasowitz, sent a letter to Baquet saying “your article is reckless, defamatory and constitutes libel per se.”
“We hereby demand that you immediately cease any further publication of this article, remove it from your website and issue a full and immediate retraction and apology. Failure to do so will leave my client with no option but to purse all available actions and remedies,” Kasowitz wrote.
The letter lacks any substantive facts to cast doubt on the Times story, and is not a lawsuit.
In his response to Kasowitz, McCraw — who canceled his “annual update on newsroom law” session that he was going to hold for staffers on Thursday — also wrote, “The women quoted in our story spoke out on an issue of national importance — indeed, an issue that Mr. Trump himself discussed with the whole nation watching during Sunday night’s presidential debate…. It would have been a disservice not just to our readers but to democracy itself to silence their voices…. If Mr. Trump disagrees, if he believes that American citizens had no right to hear what these women had to say and that the law of this country forces us and those who would dare to criticize him to stand silent or be punished, we welcome the opportunity to have a court set him straight.”
What might happen next?
Along with the potential suit against the Times, high-ranking sources within the Trump campaign also said they were “drafting” a lawsuit against The Palm Beach Post, which published a separate story.
A lawyer for Trump similarly threatened to sue The Times when it published several pages of his 1995 tax return earlier this month, but did not follow through.
If the Trump campaign does proceed with lawsuits in this case, it would be a break from past practice, and it will give both the Times and the Post the opportunity to pursue discovery and request information on Trump’s entire sexual history, because Trump would have the burden of proving falsity and actual malice.
In the Times story, Leeds alleges that Trump, whom she says she had never met before, grabbed her breasts and tried to put his hand up her skirt while the two were on an airplane more than three decades ago. Crooks, who worked in Trump Tower at a company that Trump did not own, says Trump kissed her outside an elevator after she introduced herself. The Post features a woman named Mindy McGillivray who says she was groped by Trump at Mar-a-Lago when she was 23.
Twohey said Crooks, who was was initially reluctant to speak publicly, reached out to the newspaper after it published a story in May titled “Crossing the Line: How Donald Trump Behaved With Women in Private.”
Leeds, the other woman in the Times article, contacted the newspaper after Sunday’s debate, when Trump was asked by CNN’s Anderson Cooper if he had ever done the things he described in that video.
“No, I have not,” Trump said.
Michael Barbaro, who co-bylined the story with Twohey, tweeted Wednesday night, “This story might not have happened unless @andersoncooper had asked the pointed questions he did at debate.”
The Times report comes in the wake of the release of a 2005 recording in which Trump boasted about being able to kiss women and grope them in ways that would amount to sexual assault.
In a statement on the Times’ report earlier on Wednesday night, Trump spokesman Jason Miller said the “entire article is fiction.”
“For the New York Times to launch a completely false, coordinated character assassination against Mr. Trump on a topic like this is dangerous,” Miller said in the statement. “To reach back decades in an attempt to smear Mr. Trump trivializes sexual assault, and it sets a new low for where the media is willing to go in its efforts to determine this election.”
Late Wednesday night, People Magazine also published a report by one of its writers, Natasha Stoynoff, in which she alleged that she had been physically attacked by Trump at Mar-a-Lago while writing a profile on Trump’s one-year wedding anniversary to his wife Melania. CNN has not been able to independently confirm her account.
The Trump campaign did not respond to request for comment regarding that story, but a Trump spokesperson told People, “This never happened. There is no merit or veracity to this fabricated story.”
On Thursday morning, Trump also took to Twitter to say, “Why didn’t the writer of the twelve year old article in People Magazine mention the ‘incident’ in her story. Because it did not happen!”
People Magazine editor-in-chief Jess Cagle responded in a statement, writing, “We are grateful to Natasha Stoynoff for telling her story. Ms. Stoynoff is a remarkable, ethical, honest and patriotic woman, and she has shared her story of being physically attacked by Donald Trump in 2005 because she felt it was her duty to make the public aware. To assign any other motive is a disgusting, pathetic attempt to victimize her again. We stand steadfastly by her, and are proud to publish her clear, credible account of what happened.”