This past Tuesday, March 22 at 6:53 PM, in reaction to a political ad by the anti-Trump PAC Make America Awesome, Trump tweeted:
“Lyin’ Ted Cruz just used a picture of Melania from a G.Q. shoot in his ad. Be careful, Lyin’ Ted, or I will spill the beans on your wife!”
Lyin’ Ted Cruz just used a picture of Melania from a G.Q. shoot in his ad. Be careful, Lyin’ Ted, or I will spill the beans on your wife!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 23, 2016
The ad showed Melania Trump posing nude. The image was previously published in a 2000 GQ magazine photo shoot. The text overlaid on the image read, “Meet Melania Trump, your next First Lady. Or, you could support Ted Cruz on Tuesday.” Though Cruz denied any involvement and called Trump’s wife “lovely” in a response tweet, Trump on Wednesday reiterated the accusation that Cruz was involved with the ad.
Around the same time Trump tweeted the threat to Cruz, Fox News aired an interview with Cruz, placing him in New York City at time of Trump’s tweet. Trump’s whereabouts at the time of his possibly coercive tweet are undetermined. He did grant several phone interviews on Tuesday, and on Wednesday he gave a video interview from Palm Beach, Florida. This analysis will proceed using New York law. However, an analysis under Florida law for extortion would be similar.
Under New York state law (New York Penal Law § 135.60), coercion in the second degree is defined as:
A person is guilty of coercion in the second degree when he or she compels or induces a person to … abstain from engaging in conduct in which he or she has a legal right to engage… by means of instilling in him or her a fear that, if the demand is not complied with, the actor or another will:
5. Expose a secret or publicize an asserted fact, whether true or false, tending to subject some person to hatred, contempt or ridicule; or…
Coercion in the second degree is a class A misdemeanor.
Furthermore, under § 110.05, “An attempt to commit a crime is a…Class B misdemeanor when the crime attempted is a misdemeanor.” A Class B misdemeanor may be punished by up to three months imprisonment or one year probation. Also, fines may be imposed.
In the context of the Tweet, Trump’s statement, “Be careful, Lyin’ Ted,” could be construed as an attempt to induce Cruz into abstaining from mentioning Melania Trump in future communications. When Trump continued, “or I will spill the beans on your wife,” Trump clearly was attempting to instill in Cruz a fear that Trump would expose a secret that would subject Cruz to “hatred, contempt or ridicule,” as in the New York statute.
Clearly, if a person demands that Cruz give them a million dollars or that person will release damaging information about Cruz’s wife, it would be attempted coercion. Likewise, if the demand was for Cruz to drop out of the race (abstain from running for president), it would also be attempted coercion. So wouldn’t a demand to not discuss a certain topic (Melania Trump’s previous career) under threat of exposure of embarrassing information also be attempted coercion?
In the end, Trump’s demand, “Be careful, Lyin’ Ted,” may be vague enough to avoid criminal liability under New York law, but the intent of his message to coerce Cruz was clear. Dancing on the edge of criminal behavior is a pattern with Trump, who, for example, uttered “I’d like to punch him in the face” at a campaign rally in Las Vegas, a statement venerating violence, but falling short of actual incitement. In North Carolina, a sheriff’s office looked into whether to Charge Trump with inciting a riot before deciding not to file charges.
“Do what I say, or I will expose your secrets,” is a classic form of coercion. The fact that it is being committed by the leading Republican candidate for president is just as much an indictment of our party and culture as it is of Trump.
You can see the appropriate penal law codes for yourself below:
New York Penal Law:
Florida Penal Law: