''I Hardly Expected My October Letter to Donald Trump to Go Viral''
Times Insider delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how news, features and opinion come together at The New York Times. In this piece, David McCraw, a newsroom lawyer for The Times, describes the reactions to his now famous letter to Donald J. Trump’s lawyer.
Thursday morning began with an email from Dean Baquet, executive editor of The Times. No message, just the re: line “After midnight.” Attached was the late-night letter that Donald J. Trump’s lawyers had sent, threatening to sue The Times over an article from the day before about two women who said Mr. Trump had groped them.
Dean’s email was no surprise (other than that curious call-out to the Eric Clapton song). The internet had lit up Wednesday night with reports from the Trump campaign that the candidate intended to sue the paper.
Like lots of lawyers, I write dozens of lawyer letters every year. They tend to have an audience of one: An attorney who writes to the paper unhappy with something we have done. I write back, and more often than not, nothing more is ever heard. We take no offense. We’re lawyers, not novelists.Continue reading the main story
I knew of course that this one would be different. The Trump campaign had distributed the threat letter on the internet overnight; the morning news shows were leading with it. What I didn’t know was just how different it would be.
By Friday night, more than a million people would come to The Times’s website to read the response I ended up writing. On Saturday, two days after the letter went public, it still topped the “most emailed” and “most viewed” list on nytimes.com.
I wrote the letter in about 45 minutes on Thursday morning, between a meeting on the company’s emergency operations plan and a conference call about a new patent suit we have in Texas. (Is somebody really claiming to have invented a method for switching from watching one video to watching another?) Three of my colleagues from the Legal Department — Ken Richieri, Diane Brayton and Ian MacDougall — then came by to go over the draft.
We went around for about 30 minutes, talking about whether the overall point and tone were right, whether words should be tweaked, whether the ending was right. I went online to double-check quotes. We tried to gauge the likely public reaction. In the end, we convinced ourselves to make a few minor tweaks but to stick with the original draft.
“Stand by your Twitter accounts. We are about to go live,” I wrote to my colleagues in the legal department. I intended it to be a joke.
In the first 90 minutes, I had 90 emails. Then the pace picked up.
Hundreds of emails poured in. They came from Tanzania, the Northern Mariana Islands, England, Sri Lanka, Australia and from all over the United States. Someone asked to translate the letter into Spanish. Most of the emails were from strangers, many from lawyers, but also from a nurse and a doctor, retired people, the founder of a nonprofit, law school students, parents whose kids had seen the letter online at college, journalists from other news organizations. I heard from students I had taught 30 years ago when I was a college professor, former colleagues, law school classmates I hadn’t seen in two decades, my brother’s high school girlfriend, a person who says we met at a wedding 10 years ago, my ex-wife. (Mr. Trump’s attorneys, as is often the way with lawyer letters, have not written back yet.)
One person took issue with my comma usage. Somebody suggested I be disbarred. I was made aware of a raging online debate set off by the letter over whether there should be two spaces or one after a period.
Many people read the letter the way I did, as an expression of some basic points about how the law of press freedom works in this country. Lots of people took the opportunity to vent about Donald Trump. Not surprising, but not really my point. I grew up in a small farming town in Illinois. Both my father and my mother were World War II veterans who served in Europe. Unlike many of my Manhattan friends, I get why Mr. Trump appeals to good people like the ones I grew up with.
But when it comes to the right of Americans to speak out or to know what people in power are up to, I don’t much care about people’s politics. I have sued the Obama administration more than 20 times over its failure to respond appropriately to Freedom of Information requests. One of my colleagues in Legal used to refer to a lawyer in the Cuomo administration as “that person you scream at on the phone.” I know why public officials have private email accounts, and why they should cut it out.
The most moving of the emails were from women. Many saw my letter as standing up not just for The Times but for the two women who had come forward to our reporters to tell their stories.
“I felt you were also speaking ... for all of the women that have been bullied after reporting sexual harassment/assault/abuse. For that I sincerely thank you,” one wrote.
Another wrote: “I don’t know one woman who has not experienced some level of this sort of aggressive, entitled behavior over the course of her life. Yet so many of us just try to bury it and move on, while arguing within ourselves whether we weren’t partially to blame. Perhaps this new discussion will help bring about meaningful change. Thank you for helping bring this into sharp relief.”
Someone else talked about the harassment she and others had experienced. “I know more women than I can count on both my hands and feet who have had similar experiences to my own. The number of said women who had the courage to push against these more powerful men can be, sadly, counted on one hand alone ... I thank The New York Times for standing strong.”
Other people simply wanted to express their appreciation. Somebody wrote to say that it made him proud to have gone to the same high school as I did — unless I was some other David McCraw. “Even if you are not an M.H.S. grad — I still admire what you did.”
“Sending you the highest of fives,” wrote another reader, although she predicted my spam filter would end up with her email. A couple in California said they had opened a bottle of wine and toasted the letter. A New Yorker said he wanted to be the “289,000th human being to say thank you.”
But my favorite email was the one that ended: “As my sister put it, ‘I’ve never wanted to hang a paragraph from a lawyer on my fridge before.’ ”