Donald Trump tried to control voices via NDA contracts but this failed in a recent ruling, and could apply to all people he made sign those agreements which could lead to bad stories
In my first week as editor in chief of the Champion, Liberty University’s student-run weekly, our faculty adviser, Deborah Huff, ordered me to apologize. I’d noticed that our evangelical school’s police department didn’t publish its daily crime log online, as many other private university forces do, so I searched elsewhere for crime information I might use in an article. I called the Virginia Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators to find out what the law required Liberty to disclose. But the public affairs worker there told the Liberty University Police Department, which complained to Huff. She called to upbraid me: Apparently, I had endangered our newspaper’s relationship with the LUPD. Huff and Chief Richard Hinkley convened a meeting inside a police department conference room, and Huff sat next to me while I proffered the forced apology to Hinkley — for asking questions. Huff, too, was contrite, assuring the police chief that it wouldn’t happen again, because she’d keep a better eye on me.
This wasn’t exactly a rude awakening. I’d spent the previous three years watching the university administration, led by President Jerry Falwell Jr. (who took a very micromanaging interest), meddle in our coverage, revise controversial op-eds and protect its image by stripping damning facts from our stories. Still, I stuck around. I thought that if I wrote with discretion and kept my head down, I could one day win enough trust from the university to protect the integrity of our journalism. I even dreamed we could eventually persuade the administration to let the Champion go independent from its supervision. I was naive.
Instead, when my team took over that fall of 2017, we encountered an “oversight” system — read: a censorship regime — that
- required us to send every story to Falwell’s assistant for review.
- Any administrator or professor who appeared in an article had editing authority over any part of the article;
- they added and deleted whatever they wanted.
- Falwell called our newsroom on multiple occasions to direct our coverage personally, as he had a year earlier when, weeks before the 2016 election, he read a draft of my column defending mainstream news outlets and ordered me to say whom I planned to vote for. I refused on ethical grounds, so Falwell told me to insert “The author refused to reveal which candidate he is supporting for president” at the bottom of the column. I complied. (Huff and the police department declined to comment on the contents of this essay. Falwell and the university did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Eventually I quit, and the School of Communication decided not to replace me, turning the paper into a faculty-run, student-written organ and seizing complete control of its content. Student journalists must now sign a nondisclosure agreement that forbids them from talking publicly about “editorial or managerial direction, oversight decisions or information designated as privileged or confidential.” The form also states that the students understand they are “privileged” to receive “thoughts, opinions, and other statements” from university administrators.
What my team and I experienced at the Champion was not an isolated overreaction to embarrassing revelations. It was one example of an infrastructure of thought-control that Falwell and his lieutenants have introduced into every aspect of Liberty University life. Faculty, staff and students on the Lynchburg, Va., campus have learned that it’s a sin to challenge the sacrosanct status of the school or its leaders, who mete out punishments for dissenting opinions (from stripping people of their positions to banning them from the school). This “culture of fear,” as it was described by several of the dozen Liberty denizens who talked to me for this story — most of them anonymously, to protect their jobs or their standing — worsened during my four years on campus because of the 2016 presidential election.
By 2016, Liberty’s efforts to limit free expression were already well-established. (“The big victory was finding a way to tame the faculty,” Falwell told the New York Times last year for a story about privileging Liberty’s financial growth over its academics.) But the school’s methods became even more aggressive after Falwell endorsed Donald Trump early that year, according to multiple current and former faculty members. “The closer you get to the president’s office,” says former history professor Brian Melton, discussing a chilling effect on campus, “the worse it becomes.” Falwell’s staff now operates masterfully to squash challenges to his views and his rise in national political influence.
The dissent that did exist — from off-message campus speakers, insufficiently sycophantic board members, student activists and our newspaper staff — was ruthlessly neutralized. Liberty, founded on principles of fundamental Christianity, is now a place that has zero tolerance for new questions and ideas. Those who harbor them must remain silent, or leave.
Falwell, 57, possesses a certain Orwellian gift for painting Liberty as a bastion of tolerance where alternate viewpoints are not just permitted but encouraged. In March, he attended the signing of Trump’s executive order on college free speech and later claimed on “PBS NewsHour” that Liberty was inclusive of all ideas because it had invited Jimmy Carter to deliver its 2018 commencement address and Bernie Sanders to speak in 2015 at the assembly that students are required to attend twice a week. After Falwell learned last month that I was writing this essay, he posted a column on Liberty’s site disputing “sensational stories . . . that we do not allow opposing views.” He wrote, “If there’s one thing I’m certain of, it’s that there will be a strong and critical response to this article by a few former students and a handful of national media determined to paint Liberty in a completely different light on these issues.”
His Twitter account is a much better reflection of his approach to dissent. Falwell’s profile announces that “Haters will be blocked,” and several students who have disagreed or argued with him on Twitter have met this fate. Falwell outright lied on the platform to Sojourners Web editor Sandi Villarreal — who is now my colleague — when he said he’d removed a Champion op-ed criticizing Trump’s “locker room talk” defense because there was simply not enough room on the page. (The piece was already laid out on the page when he pulled it.) In fact, much of Falwell’s message control has to do with safeguarding Trump.
Mark DeMoss was something like Liberty royalty. His late father, Arthur S. DeMoss, gave $20 million to build DeMoss Hall, the school’s main academic building. Mark was also an alumnus, a former chief of staff to university founder Jerry Falwell Sr. and eventually a public relations executive who counted Liberty among his clients. He won a seat on the school’s board of trustees in 1991 after serving as Liberty’s spokesman and became the board’s executive committee chairman in 2008.
In January 2016, days before Trump was scheduled to speak at Liberty, Falwell emailed DeMoss asking whether he should endorse Trump for president. DeMoss says he recommended against endorsing anyone, and Falwell thanked him for the “great advice.” Falwell, at the speech, held back his imprimatur. But a week later, he anointed the billionaire with his support. DeMoss was horrified. “The bullying tactics of personal insult have no defense — and certainly not for anyone who claims to be a follower of Christ,” he told The Washington Post at the time. Falwell seemed to take the rebuke in stride, saying he was “disappointed” in DeMoss but understood “that all the administrators and faculty have their own personal political views.”
Within a few months, though, DeMoss would be gone. The night before a Liberty board meeting that April, the executive committee, including Falwell, convened without DeMoss to vote on a motion to oust him from his role as chairman. DeMoss says that his criticism of the endorsement was the cause. (Before the meeting, Falwell had called him a pawn of rival campaigns.) DeMoss resigned as a trustee days later, on April 25, 2016, citing “a lack of trust.”
A week after that, Liberty changed the sign on DeMoss Hall to “Arthur S. DeMoss Hall,” making clear that the structure honored the father and not the wayward son. The message to faculty and students was clear: If you challenge Falwell, you will be not only removed but erased.
The culture of Liberty is governed by lists of principles. According to the Faculty Handbook, for instance, professors are expected to “promote . . . free market processes” and “affirm . . . that the Bible is inerrant in the originals and authoritative in all matters.” One cause of perpetual insecurity at Liberty is the school’s militant refusal to award tenure to any faculty member (outside the law school, which must offer it for accreditation). Instructors are instead hired on year-to-year contracts; during the spring semester, they find out whether they will be coming back the next fall.
The result is constant, erratic faculty turnover. One recently fired teacher describes the spring as a cycle of stressed-out, fearful professors wandering into each other’s offices to ask if they had their contracts renewed yet. “If you’re a conservative Christian in the academic world, the chances of you getting a job are nil in many areas,” says Melton, who worked at Liberty as an associate professor for 15 years before resigning because of what he described as the school’s surveillance and fear tactics. “The administration knows that, and . . . they wield that very effectively, keeping people quiet.”
Late-notice faculty removals have also become more commonplace, according to Melton, stemming in part from Falwell’s stated desire to tame the teaching corps. “He considers the faculty to be disposable beasts of burden,” Melton says. Last summer, 14 professors at Liberty’s School of Education were suddenly told that their contracts would not be renewed as part of what former Liberty spokesman Len Stevens called a “reorganization.” This June, a dozen faculty members at Liberty’s School of Divinity were notified that their contracts would not be renewed. By that late in the year, it is too late to find another job in higher education for the fall.
For former faculty members, Liberty’s culture of fear can live on. The school often requires terminated professors to sign a nondisclosure agreement if they want their severance packages, several told me — a practice that is extremely uncommon in higher education, according to Robert Bezemek, a California lawyer who represents labor unions at universities. (As Melton puts it, “They force this NDA on you by leveraging the ability to feed your family against you.”) Even former teachers who hadn’t signed NDAs told me they feared that talking to me on the record would somehow get them blacklisted from jobs elsewhere or imperil their friends who still work at Liberty. One thought my request to speak with him was a trap, calling my previous connection with the school “fishy.” When I contacted another for an interview, she warned me, “The university is on to you.” I confess I harbor a certain paranoia, too, from years of being watched at the Champion. Melton and several other current and former members of the faculty told me that they believe the administration surveils everything they do on Liberty’s server, tracking when instructors complete a task late and searching for evidence of “disloyalty,” as a former professor put it. Another onetime instructor declined to use his university-issued laptop because he thought Liberty had equipped it with spyware.
One cause for alarm came just before Trump’s inauguration, when then-Provost Ronald Hawkins ordered all campus faculty members to fill out an anonymous survey rating how politically and socially liberal they were on a scale of 1 to 5. “We are interested in how we compare with other institutions on political and social views,” Hawkins’s office said in a follow-up email to faculty members. But, according to a former professor who talked with others in her department, many initially refused to take the survey out of fear that if a department had too many left-leaning professors, the administration might target it for more oversight or even firings. There is no evidence of Liberty firing a faculty member explicitly for his or her political beliefs, but everyone I spoke to believed that the school could easily manufacture some other pretense. “There is zero trust between the administration and faculty,” Melton says. FIRE, a nonprofit that fights for free speech on campus, put Liberty on its 2019 list of the 10 worst colleges for freedom of speech.
Things aren’t much better for the 15,000 students on campus. In 2009, Liberty withdrew funding and recognition for its College Democrats chapter because, as Mark Hine, the senior vice president of student affairs, put it, the national party defends abortion, opposed the Defense of Marriage Act, supported “the ‘LGBT’ agenda, hate crimes, which include sexual orientation and gender identity, socialism, etc.” A.J. Strom, who graduated in May, tells me that several students wanted to revive the College Democrats but no faculty members were willing to advise them, without which Liberty will not recognize a student club. “They said they would love to sign on but that if Jerry saw their name on the club application, they would be fired,” Strom says.
Student leaders have consistently helped administrators enforce the culture. After the Charlottesville rally in August 2017, members of Liberty’s Student Government Association drafted a statement expressing solidarity with Heather Heyer, the protester murdered by a neo-Nazi, and all people demonstrating against white nationalism. Then-SGA President Caleb Johnson refused to release the message and send it to university administrators for fear of what Falwell might think. (Johnson said in an email this past week that the statement’s author was “a self-described ‘Never-Trumper’ ” and that “we would not allow the platform of Liberty Student Government to be improperly used by a political activist with obvious ulterior motives.”) “There’s 100 percent an atmosphere of fear at Liberty,” says Caleb Fitzpatrick, who was then the student government’s speaker of the House and helped draft the statement. “There was a need to avoid being seen as a liberal or progressive, or even being different.”
In September 2018, nearly a year into the #MeToo movement, Liberty invited conservative provocateur Candace Owens to speak at an assembly. A few days before her visit, Owens tweeted that the women accusing Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault were “making it up.” In response, Addyson Garner, then president of a libertarian club on campus, organized a rally to support victims of sexual assault, called #LUforMeToo, which would occur right after the Owens speech. The day before, Jacob Page, then the student body president, summoned her to his office, where he and Vice President Derek Rockey pressured her to cancel the event, Garner says. She left the office in tears, but she and her fellow organizers decided to protest anyway. About 25 students attended, a rare show of defiance on a campus that discourages political dissent. (In an email this past week, Rockey said he thought students should attend a public dialogue on these topics rather than stage a protest. Page said he and Rockey “support bringing awareness to victims of sexual assault” but “felt it was unproductive to engage in partisan protests.”)
Guests at the school who deviate from the prescribed philosophy can be targeted, too. In October 2017, the anti-Trump pastor and writer Jonathan Martin arrived at the invitation of the Christian musical duo Johnnyswim, who were performing on campus that night; Martin also announced on Twitter that he would lead a prayer meeting with students the next morning. Falwell took it as an unauthorized protest, and the LUPD sent three armed officers to remove Martin from campus, telling him he’d be arrested if he returned. Martin tweeted that it was “evidently in response to my strong criticism of @JerryFallwellJr’s alignment not only with the darkest contours of Trumpism, but expressly with Steve Bannon & the alt-right he represents.” Falwell told the Champion that Martin’s forcible removal was “a matter of safety.”
A similar episode unfolded in 2015 when Jonathan Merritt, a Liberty alumnus and Christian writer, was disinvited to speak on campus after authoring an article critical of Hobby Lobby, the company permitted by the Supreme Court in 2014 to deny its employees contraceptive health-care coverage. The Green family, which owns Hobby Lobby, is close with Falwell. “You don’t seem to remember who your friends are,” Merritt remembers Falwell saying over the phone.
One afternoon in April 2016, when I was still a cub reporter in my sophomore year, I received a one-sentence email from Deborah Huff, our adviser: “need to talk to you about SG,” the subject line read; I should call her that night. She copied the editor in chief, a senior. I was clearly in trouble.
“SG” stood for Scott Garrett, a traditionalist conservative who represents Lynchburg in the state legislature. According to records I had found through the Virginia Public Access Project, he owned millions of dollars in stock, some from companies that lobby lawmakers in Richmond. A few days earlier, I interviewed him for the Champion about possible conflicts of interest stemming from his assets.
After dinner, I called Huff. She sounded annoyed. When I described my reporting to her, she told me the Champion would not run my story, because Garrett was afraid that the article would hurt his reputation. The message was clear: I had no business heckling Liberty’s friends and allies. (“I don’t remember the incident in question,” Garrett emailed me this week when I asked him for a comment. “And I don’t understand why I would say the article would hurt my reputation because there was no conflict of interest.”)
Out of fear that arguing with her would end my career at the paper — she selected which students would advance to editorships — I apologized for looking into Garrett’s finances and assured her that this sort of thing wouldn’t happen again. I understood that her job, and by extension mine, was to protect our righteous, evangelical university. Before becoming a Liberty teacher and then supervisor of the Champion, Huff worked for the Fundamentalist Journal, a now-defunct Falwell-owned periodical. I didn’t see defending the faith or protecting Liberty as the main purpose of journalism. But in the face of a mentor I trusted, I believed I must have been in the wrong.
Looking back on the emails from that episode three years later, I’m embarrassed by my naivete — and my willingness to abandon a scoop with obvious journalistic merit. The scales began to fall from my eyes as, over the next 18 months, I saw how in every issue of the Champion the administration strategically manipulated or erased stories. Huff discouraged us from following leads that might disrupt the image of Liberty as a prestigious, respectable evangelical institution. In pitch meetings, she made it clear that the Champion would not cover Liberty scandals, even those that appeared in mainstream news outlets (such as the Falwells’ secret business relationships or the wave of Liberty alumni who sent back their diplomas after Falwell defended Trump’s comment that there were “very fine people” on both sides of the white-nationalist Charlottesville rally).
By the time I became the Champion’s editor, the censorship I hoped to stop was already shameless. In February 2017, I wrote an article on a higher-education task force that Trump had asked Falwell to lead. Falwell emailed me his personal edits, removing every quote from an expert concerning possible conflicts of interest that Falwell created by accepting the position (in the end, the task force was never formed). Months later, Huff ordered that my story about Martin’s expulsion from campus include lines about how Liberty is inclusive of different political beliefs, in the face of obvious counterevidence. An administrator spiked a news report about an on-campus swing dancing club that was temporarily banned. When film students drafted a petition in early 2018 objecting to “The Trump Prophecy” — a hagiographic tale about a firefighter who said he had prophesized Trump’s election, which Liberty students were compelled to produce in order to receive their degrees — faculty at the film school crafted our coverage into a fluffy bit of PR highlighting students who looked forward to working on set. Champion reporter Jack Panyard was so disgusted, he removed his byline from the piece. Then there was sports editor Joel Schmieg’s column about “locker room talk” after the “Access Hollywood” video came out; Falwell blocked it from publication.
This interference frequently caused shouting matches with, and passive aggressive emails from, administrators. “Too bad the editor and chief of The Champion penned this editorial for the homecoming edition without any effort to learn all that is being done at Liberty to prevent and react appropriately to sexual assault,” Liberty General Counsel David Corry wrote to Falwell and Huff about my column on campus sexual assault. Instead of sticking up for the journalists she supervised, Huff emailed me to complain that I did not “make sure Liberty was separated from the conversation or address what Liberty does that is different than other schools.” Later that day, the piece was removed from the website without my consent. (In his preemptive statement last month, Falwell seemed to address these episodes. “In the past few years, some students screamed ‘censorship’ when they didn’t get their every word published in our campus newspaper,” he wrote. “But that standard isn’t even attained within the newsroom of commercial newspapers.”)
In the wake of these run-ins, members of our staff often gathered in my office to daydream about taking the paper independent or grouse about Huff, whom we felt was gaslighting us. What kind of newspaper adviser would denounce our attempts to keep Liberty accountable and make us repeatedly apologize to administrators for trying? By this point, it was clear that the principles of investigative journalism I was learning in class were verboten when it came to Liberty itself. The Champion could never be an avatar of press freedom or truth-telling.
I grew up in a politically conservative household and was active in my denomination; my values changed at Liberty as I embraced a more inclusive and open vision of the church. My views of Liberty, and of the values I saw Falwell profess on a daily basis, changed as well. I considered transferring schools or resigning from the paper. The weekly fight for the right to publish was exhausting. Still, I decided to stay because I saw that, on the occasions we won — when we either persuaded administrators to leave an article alone or worked around their objections — we sparked dialogue among students on Twitter and in classrooms that challenged Liberty’s status quo. But ultimately, our fraught relationship with our overlords was untenable, and something had to give.
The end finally came for the Champion when a left-leaning faith group, the Red Letter Christians, organized a “Lynchburg Revival” in April 2018 to protest Falwell’s support of Trump and what the group called “toxic evangelicalism.” Two days beforehand, Liberty’s police department notified RLC leader Shane Claiborne that he would be arrested if he set foot on campus. The Champion had already decided to cover the event, but the stakes were higher now. Huff told us it would be too controversial for print, but the other editors and I didn’t think we could ignore it.
The day before the gathering, Falwell sent an email to Erin Covey, our assistant news editor: “Let’s not run any articles about the event. That’s all these folks are here for — publicity. Best to ignore them.” When we explained our dilemma to RLC organizers, they tipped off a reporter at the Religion News Service, which ran a piece detailing Falwell’s censorship. Covey gave on-the-record quotes. Panyard, who was set to succeed me as editor in chief in a few weeks, briefed the reporter on background, as did I. (Vox also picked up the story and amplified it, and I imagine it galled Falwell to be depicted as an insecure tyrant in a liberal publication.)
The school’s response was swift. Falwell convened a tele-meeting with Bruce Kirk, who was then dean of the School of Communication, and our entire staff. They reprimanded us for talking to the press, and Falwell justified his censorship by arguing that the Red Letter Christians were “not keeping with the values of the university.” Then he spoke candidly for the first time about, as he saw it, the virtues of censoring us: “That’s what you kids are going to run into when you get into the real world and start working for for-profit newspapers. That’s what they’re going to expect of you, and I want you to learn that while you’re here.” Kirk, who was sitting with us for the meeting, chimed in, agreeing with Falwell. Being censored by a higher-up in the media industry is “just a part of life,” he said. (Before he began at Liberty, he worked for a local news station operated by Sinclair Broadcasting.)
After the meeting, I felt sick. I hadn’t said a word while Falwell flayed us for trying to practice basic journalism and act with integrity. I went into my office, closed the door and waited until most of the staff had left the newsroom. Then I sat down at my desk and wept.
A week and a half later, Kirk called Panyard and Covey into his office and told them they were being let go as part of a “reorganization.” Nobody else was affected; they’d been fired. It was the most aggressive and direct action the administration had ever taken to silence the Champion. I was not fired — I was a lame duck anyway — but I resigned and refused to take part in the production of the year’s final edition. I cleaned out my office that same day. Soon after, I learned I would be the last student editor in chief of the Champion and that from now on the paper would be run directly by the school. (Kirk did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this story.)
Even at Liberty, there are still those who publicly reject Falwell’s diktats. A petition supporting Mark DeMoss won more than 70 student signatures when Falwell ousted him in 2016. During the presidential election, free speech lived a little when Liberty United Against Trump, a student group, scored national media attention for its stance that the school did not uniformly approve of Falwell’s endorsement. It said it accumulated more than 2,000 student signatures for its statement.
Panyard, the deposed editor, launched a new independent newspaper, the Lynchburg Torch, with the help of other refugees from the campus weekly. In the past year, it has published stories that the Champion’s overseers would have blocked, such as a report on LGBTQ students who oppose Liberty’s position on same-sex relationships. Addyson Garner put on another rally this year to support queer Liberty students after transphobic comments from Falwell and his wife, Becki. (“We’re raising her as a girl,” Becki Falwell said of their granddaughter Reagan, as her husband looked on. “We’re not letting her have a choice.”) Dozens of students participated, according to Garner and posts on social media. It was the first time I had ever seen the rainbow pride flag flown openly on Liberty’s campus. The school is changing.
But in significant ways, it is not more tolerant, and it certainly does not celebrate “the open exchange of competing ideas” that Falwell described in his column. In a discussion with the incoming Champion staffers after I left, Kirk said, “Your job is to keep the LU reputation and the image as it is.” The students who recall a more open time at Liberty, before Trump, have now graduated. All those who remain chose to go to Falwell’s school after he endorsed Trump, forming a much more compliant student body that generally accepts and even supports Falwell’s crackdown culture.
I graduated last year. Since then, I’ve tried to put Liberty — and the stress and self-doubt that officials there saddled me with — behind me. But I still fume when Falwell spews dumbfounding conspiracies online or retweets a bigoted rant from Trump, and I still become uneasy when I see my diploma, which is sitting in a cluttered drawer at my parents’ house. I made amazing friends and memories on campus, but I’m realizing the extent to which I internalized the fear tactics; I still sometimes self-censor my thoughts and writing. How can a college education stifle your freedom of thought? When people ask me if I regret going to Liberty, as many do, I usually pause. I don’t know.
Over time, she deepened her studies of the disorder, contributed to a book on treating schizophrenia, wrote a dissertation on stalkers, and became a clinical psychologist. But not since she became part of the lawsuit in 2000 against her uncle has she spoken in detail about what she sees as the disorders of Donald Trump.
Now her silence could be coming to an end. Her book about her uncle — “Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man” — is slated to be published next month. The book is so potentially explosive that the Trump family is seeking to block publication, citing a confidentiality agreement that Mary Trump signed as part of a settlement about her inheritance. Mary Trump’s lawyer, Theodore Boutrous Jr., said the president is trying to “suppress a book that will discuss matters of utmost public importance.”
The publisher has not revealed specifics, and Mary Trump, 55, declined an interview request. But clues to her dark view of her uncle can be seen in lawsuits, and interviews with former colleagues and teachers, academic papers and a series of now-deleted tweets, including one that said her uncle’s election was the “worst night of my life.”
A description of the book from publisher Simon & Schuster suggests it will draw heavily on her studies of family dysfunction, with Mary using her clinical background to dissect “a nightmare of traumas, destructive relationships and a tragic combination of neglect and abuse,” including “the strange and harmful relationship between” her late father and Donald Trump.
The tragedy to which the book description alludes probably is informed by an event that infused both her life and that of her uncle: the death of her father — President Trump’s older brother Fred Jr. — of alcoholism when she was 16 years old.
Friends of her father’s told The Washington Post last year that they blame his death in part on the way he was treated by Donald Trump, and the president said in an interview last year with The Post that he regrets how he dealt with his brother.
President Trump told Axios that he didn’t think his niece was allowed to write the book because she signed the confidentiality agreement. The White House declined further comment.
Donald Trump’s brother Robert, who filed the petition to stop the book, said in the filing that Mary had agreed after accepting an unspecified financial settlement from the inheritance fight that she “would not publish any account” of her relationship with Donald Trump or his siblings. In a statement, Robert Trump said Mary’s decision to “mischaracterize our family relationship after all these years for her own financial gain is a travesty and injustice” to her late father, Fred Jr., and grandfather, Fred Sr., saying the family feels that “Mary’s actions are truly a disgrace.”
A Queens County Surrogate’s Court on Thursday denied the petition on grounds of lack of jurisdiction, but Robert Trump’s attorney said it would be refiled with the New York State Supreme Court.
From birth, Mary Trump was supposed to be set for a gilded life, a grandchild of Fred Sr. and Mary. Her father, Fred Jr., was the eldest of Fred Trump Sr.’s children, and he was expected to follow his father as the leader of the family business.
Mary was featured in society columns as a fashionably dressed young girl, and she spent time at her grandparents’ palatial home in Queens, watching her father feud with Donald and Fred Sr., who ran a New York City real estate company.
Much to the family’s consternation, Fred Jr. was interested in becoming a pilot for TWA, not in renting New York City apartments. After graduating from Lehigh University in 1960, he married a flight attendant named Linda Lee Clapp in 1962. He went to flight school and the couple had two children, including Mary, who was born in 1965.
Fred Jr. was already drinking heavily by the time Mary was born, and his troubles with alcohol may have caused him to give up his dream of becoming a commercial airline pilot, according to three former TWA employees who trained with him. Meanwhile, Donald Trump and Fred Sr. continued to pressure him to join the family business.
By the time Mary was 6 years old, her mother divorced Fred Jr. A family friend, David Miller, said in an interview that while Fred Jr.’s drinking played a role in the divorce, there was also a lot of pressure from Fred Sr., who Miller said disliked Linda. “She wasn’t welcomed into the family,” Miller said of Linda. Linda could not be reached for comment.
Fred Trump Sr. agreed at the time of the divorce to support Linda and his grandchildren, providing rent and $100 per week for expenses, plus $25 per week for Mary and Fred III, according to court records. Fred Sr. agreed to pay for Mary to attend a private school during her early years as well as her college and medical expenses.
On Sept. 26, 1981, Fred Trump Jr. died at 42 years old of a heart attack, which the family has said stemmed from alcoholism. Mary was 16 years old.
Carried a burden
Mary eventually attended Tufts University, where she studied the Southern novelist William Faulkner. In a seminar with English professor Alan Lebowitz, Mary and her 15 or so fellow students analyzed the Compson family portrayed in novels such as “The Sound and the Fury.
The Compsons bore some similarities to her own family: Like the Trumps, the Compsons migrated to the United States from Scotland, and the family was riven by dysfunction. At the time, Donald Trump was running his Atlantic City casinos, which went into bankruptcy, and preparing to divorce his first wife, Ivana, and marry Marla Maples.
Lebowitz said in a telephone interview that he has rarely had a student as exceptional as Mary Trump, who was featured in the Tufts commencement program as having won the award for top English student.
“She was just as smart and accomplished as any I’ve taught in 40 years,” Lebowitz said. “She took a seminar on William Faulkner with me and she wrote two absolutely stunning papers, long, deep and elegant. We studied an enormously complex, interesting writer and she got deeply into it because she is a deep thinker.”
Lebowitz, who is retired, recalled that when she entered his classroom more than 30 years ago, he learned of the weight she carried.
“I knew that her father had been a very sad story and that she was carrying the burden of that story,” he said.
Mary and her brother Fred III had received some financial support over the years from the Trump family, and they expected to receive a significant inheritance from their grandfather, Fred Sr., who died in 1999. Mary and her brother had hoped they would get an amount close to what would have gone to their father, if he had lived, but they learned they were due to receive a lesser amount, and a probate fight ensued, court records show.
Mary and Fred III alleged that an unnamed person associated with the Trump family improperly engineered a change in the will of their grandfather, who had Alzheimer’s disease during his last years. Mary and her brother said the changes in the will were “procured by fraud and undue influence.”
Donald said at the time that he supported a cutoff of medical coverage that had been provided by a family company for Fred III’s son, William, who had cerebral palsy. Donald Trump told the New York Daily News that when he and his siblings were sued by Fred III and Mary, he felt, “Why should we give [William] medical coverage?”
Donald’s brother Robert said in a deposition that the family had given Mary annual gifts of $20,000, in addition to income from family ventures, estimating that Mary and Fred III annually received “close to $200,000 without either one lifting a finger at any time.”
Mary was livid about the family’s decision to cut off medical coverage for her nephew William. She told the Daily News at the time, “Given this family, it would be utterly naive to say it has nothing to do with money. But for both me and my brother, it has much more to do with that our father be recognized. He existed, he lived, he was their oldest son. And William is my father’s grandson. He is as much a part of that family as anybody else. He desperately needs extra care.”
In the 2000 lawsuit, Mary did not directly address her uncle Robert’s assertion that she was “not gainfully employed.” But it was around this time, after working on a master’s degree in English at Columbia University, that she served in a voluntary role in the study of schizophrenia patients, assisting senior social worker Rachel Miller at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, N.Y.
Miller said Mary Trump showed an intense interest in understanding what drove people into psychological dysfunction. “She went into a situation that is hard to see. Many doctors and social workers couldn’t go there, it was so frightening to see somebody losing their mind,” Miller said.
Mary Trump accompanied her in visits with patients who were typically 16 to 25 years old and experiencing their first episodes of schizophrenia. “She had her life set on doing what she wanted to do, which was to be a psychologist,” Miller said.
Later, when Miller needed help on a book she co-wrote, “Diagnosis: Schizophrenia,” about the study, she said Mary worked long hours to help her research and write the manual, which became popular in the field and with families of people with the disease.
‘Worst night of my life’
Mary Trump continued her studies at Adelphi University, where she earned a master’s degree in psychology in 2001, a master’s in clinical psychology in 2003, and a doctoral degree in clinical psychology in 2010, a school official said.
In her 205-page dissertation, “A Characterological Evaluation of the Victims of Stalking,” she examined whether there were certain personality characteristics that made some people “more vulnerable to being victims of stalking by an intimate partner.”
A few years later, Mary founded a company called Trump Coaching Group, which provided wellness and fitness services on Long Island.
An archived version of the now-deleted company website said the company focused on nurturing relationships. It said Mary’s interest stemmed “from her own struggles as an athlete with asthma which have given her a true appreciation for the extent to which physical well-being is vital to psychological and emotional well-being.”
One of the coaches listed as a team member said the company didn’t develop much beyond the creation of the website. Paige Crosby, who said she participated in a year-long training program with Mary Trump to become a life coach, recalled her talking about her “hurt feelings” from her “sour relationship” with Donald.
As Donald Trump announced his candidacy in 2015, Mary Trump does not appear to have said anything publicly about him.
But when it became clear that her uncle had won the presidency, she took to Twitter. “Worst night of my life,” she wrote at least 12 times in tweets that have been deleted recently. She wrote that “We should be judged harshly. . . . I grieve for our country.”
Mary Trump’s publicist, asked to verify that Mary wrote the tweets, declined to comment.
Last year, according to corporate filings, Mary created a company that echoed the name of the tragic family in Faulkner’s novels: Compson Enterprises. In an initial listing for her book, designed to keep the project a secret, her name was given as Mary Compson.
Now Mary Trump appears to hope that, with an assist from the publication of her book, the next presidential election will turn out differently from the last. She foreshadowed it at 4:07 a.m. on Nov. 9, 2016, shortly after her uncle was declared the president-elect, when she tweeted simply: “2020.”
The top prosecutor in the U.S. Virgin Islands says the estate needs to provide more detail about Jeffrey Epstein’s finances and is insisting on clauses that could protect others from wrongdoing.
Some of the same furtive techniques that Jeffrey Epstein employed in life are showing up in the litigation over dividing up the wealth he left behind when he died.
There are mysterious companies, lingering nondisclosure agreements and contractual clauses that some lawyers fear could protect anyone who took part in Mr. Epstein’s wrongdoing.
The estate’s lawyers say they have a plan to fairly distribute money to dozens of women who have accused Mr. Epstein of sexually abusing them as teenagers. But the attorney general of the U.S. Virgin Islands, where Mr. Epstein built a complex web of corporate entities, says Mr. Epstein’s money is still buying silence.
And in the middle is a fortune estimated at well over a half-billion dollars.
“We have a lot of concerns with respect to the transparency of the estate and its finances and the accounting of the estate,” the attorney general, Denise N. George, said in an interview last month.
Ms. George filed a civil forfeiture lawsuit against the estate in January, roughly five months after Mr. Epstein committed suicide while being held in federal custody in Manhattan after his arrest on sex trafficking charges. She said she sued to protect the interests of Mr. Epstein’s accusers and recoup some of the money that Mr. Epstein made during his two decades in the Virgin Islands.
The estate has insisted it is acting in the best interest of Mr. Epstein’s accusers. But it has also provided an incomplete accounting of his finances, according to records reviewed by The New York Times.
At least one business — IGO Company L.L.C., a corporate entity established by Mr. Epstein in December 2006 — was left out of the estate’s court filings. The company, which lists Mr. Epstein as its sole owner, was still active and in good standing as of Monday, according to a U.S. Virgin Islands government site.
Lawyers for the estate did not respond to a request for comment. The co-executors of the estate are Darren Indyke, a lawyer, and Richard Kahn, an accountant. Both men worked closely with Mr. Epstein for many years and were listed as officers for some of his businesses.
Much of the fighting between the estate and Ms. George’s office involves a plan to establish a victims’ compensation fund, which would allow accusers to receive payments from the estate without a potentially costly court case. The estate’s representatives say the proposed fund — which would be set up with the help of the specialist who ran the compensation program for victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — would allow accusers to receive money quickly and privately.
But Ms. George said the estate wanted to attach too many strings to those payments.
On April 7, Ms. George’s office told the probate court handling Mr. Epstein’s will that she and the estate had reached an impasse over the estate’s demand that victims who take part in the fund agree to a broad release that would bar them from suing any party “whether they participated negligently or intentionally in wrongdoing themselves.”
To Ms. George, the estate’s conduct was a reminder of the legal maneuvers that surrounded Mr. Epstein’s guilty plea 12 years ago to soliciting prostitution from a minor in Florida. In 2007, federal prosecutors agreed to a wide-ranging nonprosecution agreement that covered Mr. Epstein’s named and unnamed co-conspirators. (A federal appeals court this month rejected a legal challenge brought by one of his victims to the agreement.)
Ms. George’s office said the estate now wanted to “secure similarly broad protection for Epstein’s compatriots-in-crime from their victims.”
Lawyers for the estate reject that argument. In their response, they said Ms. George had mischaracterized the situation and said two lawyers representing several accusers were ready to move forward with the fund. The estate’s lawyers contend the liability release is “modeled on releases employed in multiple voluntary compensation programs.” Its intent, they say, is to make sure a victim does not double-dip by getting compensation from the fund and then suing an individual affiliated with the estate who might be entitled to be legally reimbursed by the estate.
The particulars of how Mr. Epstein made his millions have long been a mystery, in particular after his 2008 conviction. Financial filings the estate has made so far have raised as many questions as they have answered.
In January, the estate filed a required report that, along with routine transactions to pay bills and other expenses, showed the estate had transferred more than $12 million to Southern Country International, a little-known private bank Mr. Epstein had established in 2014.
The magistrate judge overseeing the probate of the will, Carolyn Hermon-Purcell, questioned the estate’s lawyers about the transfers and asked for a fuller accounting. The estate has not yet filed an explanation; the territory’s courts have granted blanket extensions because of the coronavirus outbreak.
But according to four people familiar with the matter, the estate’s $12 million payment to the bank involved preparations for Mr. Epstein’s criminal case. Mr. Epstein used the bank to pay a $12 million retainer fee to the criminal defense attorney Reid Weingarten, according to the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the matter has not been made public.
In mid-December, Mr. Weingarten’s law firm, Steptoe & Johnson, returned the unused portion of that retainer — roughly $11 million, according to the estate’s first quarterly filing. The next day the estate sent that money to the bank.
What happened to the money in Southern Country after that is not clear; the estate reported the bank had a year-end balance of just $500,000.
Southern Country is an unusual kind of bank: an international banking entity, which is limited to conducting business for customers overseas. Mr. Epstein was approved for his license in 2014, but the bank had not commenced doing business as of April 2018, according to a letter the bank sent to its regulator.
Ms. George’s office is small compared with her mainland counterparts, and she has bulked up its resources by hiring a forensic accountant and outside lawyers with Motley Rice, a large plaintiffs’ litigation firm. But it has been active.
In recent weeks, Ms. George’s office sent a subpoena seeking bank records for Mr. Epstein’s businesses in the Virgin Islands, according to two people briefed on the matter. She also subpoenaed some records from the Virgin Islands Economic Development Authority, the government agency that granted lucrative tax benefits to Mr. Epstein’s companies, said Tracy Bhola, an authority lawyer.
According to one person familiar with the matter, Ms. George’s office has also made a demand for information from Mr. Epstein’s former girlfriend and business associate Ghislaine Maxwell, who recently filed a lawsuit against the estate asking it to cover her legal fees for any claims brought against her by his accusers.
Ms. George’s office has also reached out to some of Mr. Epstein’s former employees in the Virgin Islands. She said her office was trying to navigate around nondisclosure agreements that Mr. Epstein had signed with many of his them. She said the estate should commit to releasing the employees from those agreements.
“Just the existence of an N.D.A. casts a shadow or chilling effect on anyone speaking freely,” she said.
While many of Mr. Epstein’s companies — including IGO Company L.L.C. — continue to exist on paper, there is little left of their physical operations.
Those include Southern Trust, once Mr. Epstein’s main business venture, which generated $300 million in profits in just six years. Mr. Epstein had said it was a DNA research firm, although Ms. George said her office had found no evidence it engaged in that kind of work. Southern Trust alone is valued at $234 million, and the estate has yet to disclose where most of its assets are being held.
For months after his death, employees still showed up at the company’s office in the American Yacht Harbor club on St. Thomas. That stopped in late February, and by the start of last month the office doors were secured with a padlock.
Ahead of a major address in New York City, the Democratic hopeful is wrapping her campaign in an anticorruption pitch to Democratic primary voters
Sen. Elizabeth Warren is proposing a federal ban on all fundraising activities hosted by lobbyists as part of a new, broad set of anticorruption proposals, adding weight to a theme that has underpinned her White House bid.
The plan, outlined Monday morning on the blog site Medium, builds on anticorruption legislation Ms. Warren announced last year. It adds the new lobbying prohibitions, as well as a ban to prevent senior executive branch officials and members of Congress from serving on for-profit boards—whether or not they receive compensation from such positions. Ms. Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, unveiled the proposal ahead of one of the splashiest events of her presidential campaign: an evening speech at New York City’s Washington Square Park.
The ideas are unlikely to become law while Republicans control the Senate and the White House. GOP lawmakers have generally lined up against similar proposals, citing constitutional concerns.
Typically, new restrictions on registered lobbyists lead to more Washington operatives deciding not to register, instead referring to themselves as consultants or strategic advisers. Ms. Warren says her plan would close that workaround by expanding the definition of lobbyist to include “all individuals paid to influence government.”
Such appeals to the idea that Washington is corrupt could pay off at the ballot box in 2020. In a WSJ/NBC News poll conducted last fall ahead of the midterm elections, 77% of all respondents said reducing the influence of special interests and corruption in Washington ranked as either the most important or a very important factor in deciding which candidate should get their vote. The only issue that ranked higher was the economy. Many Democrats who won House seats in 2018 campaigned on decreasing the influence of money in politics.
“Look closely, and you’ll see—on issue after issue, widely popular policies are stymied because giant corporations and billionaires who don’t want to pay taxes or follow any rules use their money and influence to stand in the way of big, structural change,” Ms. Warren wrote Monday.
Ms. Warren is also pushing to alter the definition of a “thing of value” in campaign finance laws to include tangible benefits made for campaign purposes, in what appeared to be a nod to President Trump.
The Wall Street Journal reported in November 2018 that Mr. Trump intervened to suppress stories about alleged sexual encounters with women, including the former Playboy model Karen McDougal and the former adult-film star known professionally as Stormy Daniels, citing interviews with three dozen people, court papers, corporate records and other documents. The president’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, told a federal judge that Mr. Trump had directed him during the 2016 campaign to buy the silence of two women who said they had affairs with Mr. Trump.
Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty in August 2018 to eight criminal charges, including campaign-finance violations. Mr. Trump has denied the encounters.
Ms. Warren is additionally proposing making it harder for corporations to seal settlements of product liability litigation, something Democrats have called for in the past, notably in 2014 following a faulty ignition switch installed on 2.6 million General Motors vehicles.
A federal judge in Chicago has made an unusual demand of the new chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission: Testify in front of—and perhaps be cross-examined by—lawyers for two companies that were recently penalized by the regulator.
U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey this week ordered Chairman Heath Tarbert to testify about statements he and his agency made following a $16 million agreement with Kraft Foods Group Inc. and Mondelez Global LLC to settle wheat price-rigging allegations.
Heads of regulatory agencies aren’t typically called upon to testify in court. Lawyers who specialize in CFTC cases called the move by Judge Blakey surreal and unprecedented.
The order, which also requires two other CFTC commissioners to testify at the hearing in Chicago, is an early setback for Mr. Tarbert, who took the helm July 15. The hearing could delve into the agency’s sensitive internal deliberations, and Judge Blakey on Monday raised the possibility he could make a referral for criminal contempt of court. Mr. Tarbert didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The hearing, scheduled for Sept. 12, follows a motion by Kraft and Mondelez alleging that the statements by the CFTC, Mr. Tarbert and the two other commissioners violated an unconventional provision of the settlement. The provision prohibited parties to the settlement from making public comments about the deal, beyond referring to information in public records or the terms of a consent order approved by Judge Blakey.
On Aug. 15, a day after the settlement was finalized, the CFTC did just that: It issued a press release announcing the settlement with Kraft and Mondelez, which were one corporate entity when the agency announced its civil charges in 2015.
“America is the breadbasket of the world; wheat markets are its heart,” Mr. Tarbert said in the release. “Market manipulation inflicts real pain on farmers by denying them the fair value of their hard work and crops.”
The commission and its two Democratic commissioners, Rostin Behnam and Dan Berkovitz, also released separate statements touting the settlement and noting the restriction on public statements. The statement from Messrs. Behnam and Berkovitz took particular issue with the provision but said it didn’t restrict them from speaking individually about the settlement.
The press release and statements prompted Kraft and Mondelez to accuse the CFTC of violating the terms of the settlement. The companies have asked Judge Blakey to impose a monetary penalty on the agency.
CFTC lawyers argue that the statements didn’t violate the provision because they largely summarized information already in the public record. And individual commissioners can’t be prohibited from issuing their own opinions as a matter of law, they say. Nonetheless, the CFTC agreed Monday to temporarily remove the three statements from its website.
At a hearing Monday, Judge Blakey ordered Messrs. Tarbert, Behnam and Berkovitz to appear in court to answer questions about the statements. Lawyers for the CFTC, including its enforcement division director, and counsel for Kraft and Mondelez also are expected to testify.
Messrs. Behnam and Berkovitz didn’t respond to requests for comment left with their offices at the CFTC. A lawyer for Kraft and Mondelez also didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The legal protections enjoyed by the CFTC could make it difficult for the judge, or for Kraft and Mondelez lawyers, to question the commissioners closely about internal decision-making at the regulator.
But a decision by the court that the agency had violated the settlement would be a bad outcome for the agency and its chairman, said Matt Kluchenek, a lawyer specializing in CFTC cases at Mayer Brown LLP.
The CFTC is concerned about its reputation and maintaining confidentiality, Mr. Kluchenek said. “If the court disagrees” with the agency’s arguments, he said, “it’s embarrassing, frankly, for all concerned.”
Agreements negotiated by the CFTC also normally include a detailed summary of factual and legal findings explaining how a company violated a particular law. Those findings, which typically appear in a settlement agreement, provide guidance to the public about the agency’s interpretation of its laws.
The CFTC’s settlement with Kraft and Mondelez didn’t include such a summary, which was another anomaly of the agreement, said Elizabeth Davis, a former CFTC lawyer who now works at Murphy & McGonigle PC.
The civil complaint filed against Kraft and Mondelez was based in part on an anti-manipulation statute in the Dodd-Frank Act, a 2010 law designed to boost regulation of the financial sector after the 2008 economic crisis. Other companies had been looking to the case for guidance on the anti-manipulation statute, Ms. Davis said.
”The fact that the settlement happened without legal conclusions means those questions are unanswered,” she said.
The change, which affects about 47 million accounts, including those for Chase’s popular Sapphire cards, reflects a broader effort by Wall Street firms to prevent customers and employees from engaging in class-action lawsuits that can result in large settlements and bad publicity. Unlike court cases, arbitration cases do not leave a trail of public documents and they cannot be brought by groups of aggrieved customers.
JPMorgan — the country’s largest bank — is far from alone in increasing the use of arbitration clauses. Seventy-two percent of banks used such clauses in 2016, up from 59 percent in 2013, according to a report from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
The notifications said the arbitration agreement would apply not just to the customers’ current accounts but “all claims or disputes between you and us,” including “any prior account.”
The policy change turns back the clock in another way by bringing back the kind of arbitration clauses the bank and others agreed to temporarily drop in 2009 as part of a class-action lawsuit. The bank agreed to remove such provisions for three and a half years, starting in 2010, to settle a lawsuit that alleged large banks were working together to push customers into arbitration.