One of the most anticipated events of Donald Trump's administration actually happened Tuesday night: Pages from his tax returns were aired on live TV for the whole country to investigate. The White House almost immediately accused one of the journalists responsible for putting Trump on blast of illegally obtaining the document, but she was just as quick to deny the allegations. In light of the disputed claims of illegality and Trump's litigious past, it's possible that there could be a court case resulting from this whole incident. Rachel Maddow could be charged for releasing Trump's tax returns — but it would be a very bad signal for the administration to send, considering its conflicts with the media.
The White House press office released a statement on the taxes confirming the details in the document, just minutes before Maddow released it herself. The statement also accused Maddow of stealing the document before she had even publicly revealed it. “You know you are desperate for ratings when you are willing to violate the law to push a story about two pages of tax returns from over a decade ago,” the statement said.
Maddow was quick to retort during the segment, which “For the record, the First Amendment gives us the right to publish this return,” Maddow said. “It’s not illegally published. Nor are we fake. Pinch me, I’m real.”
The interesting part is that the Trump administration knew what year's taxes Maddow had obtained before she announced it. Most likely, Maddow's people reached out to the administration to give them a chance to get their comment together when the news broke — however, several outlets, including CNN, have speculated that the president may have leaked his own tax returns. (The president and his administration deny this.)
In all likelihood, the case wouldn't stick anyway. Call it naïveté, but it seems unbelievable that an outlet as large and visible as MSNBC would knowingly publish illegally obtained documents. According to MSNBC's chief legal correspondent Ari Melber, who appeared on Today Wednesday morning to discuss the leak, the media “can usually report on unauthorized disclosures without being a part of the underlying crime, if there was a crime.” So as long as Maddow herself didn't steal the document, there shouldn't be any reason for her to be charged.
Still, Trump is one of the most litigious people in the country, with over 3,500 legal actions by and against him over the last 30 years. The problem with any litigation is that it would further complicate his relationship with the media, and with the American people who are wary about his characterization of journalists. It's his call as to whether he wants to push a case, but from a legal standpoint, Maddow doesn't seem to have done anything worthy of a conviction.