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Trump v. Bannon: Trial of the Century or Just Trash Talk?

Legal experts doubt president would brave legal scrutiny to follow through on lawsuit threat

Steve Bannon arrives for Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore’s “Drain the Swamp” campaign rally in Midland City, Ala., in December. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Steve Bannon arrives for Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore’s “Drain the Swamp” campaign rally in Midland City, Ala., in December. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

It would be the political trial of the century: President Donald Trump versus former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.

But don’t expect the president’s legal threats against his former right-hand man to escalate beyond the cease-and-desist letter from his lawyers, legal experts say.

Following through on a civil suit to stop Bannon’s disparaging comments this week about Trump and his family would simply be too much of a liability for the president and his top advisers, who are already under scrutiny by the Justice Department and congressional committees investigating alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign. A legal dispute would also present an unneeded distraction from the business of running the country.

“It would make no sense for Trump to be bringing these lawsuits, because he is not going to get anything out of it,” said Bradley Moss, a partner at the law office of Mark S. Zaid in Washington, D.C.

Trump has a long-established habit of threatening legal action against anyone who challenges his political and business ambitions — or simply his ego. An analysis by USA Today during the campaign found that Trump had been involved in 3,500 legal actions in federal and state courts over the past three decades.

During his campaign and first year as president, though, Trump has yet to follow through on threats he made against parties including The New York Times, The Washington Post and more than a dozen women who have accused him of sexual misconduct. One of his lawyers argued last month that he is immune from a defamation suit brought by one those women, Summer Zervos, in the New York State Supreme Court.

It is not clear what kind of legal action Trump would take against Bannon, but the letter his lawyers sent Wednesday said the former adviser had given rise to “numerous legal claims, including defamation by libel and slander, and breach of his written confidentiality and non-disparagement agreement” when he cooperated with journalist Michael Wolff on an upcoming book.

“Legal action is imminent,” the letter stated.

Bannon was quoted in excerpts released Wednesday calling “treasonous” a 2016 meeting inside Trump Tower between Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort and a Russian lawyer they believed to have dirt on Hillary Clinton. Trump fired back with a statement attempting to underplay Bannon’s role in the campaign and the White House, saying his former adviser had “lost his mind.”

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Pulling back the curtain?

Initiating a civil suit, though, would open Trump and his White House advisers to the discovery process, which would require them to submit documents and answer questions under oath. Much of that material would likely become public, and could be used in one of the Russia investigations.

“There would be discovery of all these crazy and insane allegations coming out in the book,” said Moss, who specializes in national security and federal employment law. “They would depose the president and any number of his close advisers about the details, and get on the record and under oath, the extent to which it is true and really occurred.”

Other legal experts made similar points on social media.

Here’s Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow in governance studies at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution, on Twitter:

And Paul Dickinson, a partner at the North Carolina-based Lewis & Roberts wrote:

The forced disclosure of potentially embarrassing information would not be unprecedented.

After his 2016 victory, Trump took time out from his White House transition for a videotaped deposition in one the  lawsuits he had brought against celebrity chefs José Andrés and Geoffrey Zakarian, involving restaurants in Trump’s D.C. hotel.

During that interview, Trump stated that his political career had been good for his businesses. He has been frequently criticized for his potential conflicts of interest.

“I think people like politics. And they like to be around the name and maybe me,” Trump said in the deposition. “I think people really dig it.”

Another defamation lawsuit led to one of the only public disclosures of Trump’s tax returns, which he has declined to release. Trump was forced to show those document to journalist Tim O’Brien after he sued O’Brien in 2006 for reporting that Trump had overstated his net worth. O’Brien was not allowed to report specifically on the documents. But the access gave authority to O’Brien’s later assessment that Trump had made misleading statements about his personal finances.

“The career he boasts so much about is built on sand,” O’Brien wrote in a Bloomberg column in 2016.

Legal experts had a similar assessment of Trump’s recent legal threats.

“This is a public relations stunt,” Moss said. “Nothing more, nothing less.”

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