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Trump 2020 Sues 'Washington Post,' Days After 'N.Y. Times' Defamation Suit

Mar 3, 2020
Originally published on March 4, 2020 11:38 am

President Trump's reelection campaign has sued The Washington Post claiming defamation in two opinion pieces published last June.

Both pieces raised concerns that Trump had invited Russia's help to boost his electoral fortunes. The lawsuit follows last week's defamation suit against The New York Times over an opinion piece written by the paper's former executive editor, Max Frankel, on the same subject.

The lawsuits dovetail with the president's ongoing political strategy of targeting major media outlets as foes.

The president is once more represented by the lawyer Charles Harder, known for helping to run media and gossip blog Gawker out of business. Harder previously represented first lady Melania Trump in securing settlements after filing defamation complaints against the Daily Mail and a Maryland blogger. Harder has also threatened litigation against major news organizations, including NPR, for other clients who were subject to critical coverage.

The lawsuit against the Post, filed Tuesday in federal court in Washington, D.C., alleges Trump was defamed in columns by the liberal commentators Greg Sargent and Paul Waldman. Both referred to remarks Trump made to ABC's George Stephanopoulos in which he defended the idea of accepting damaging information about political opponents from foreign governments.

In Sargent's case, he wrote that "Trump and/or his campaign....tried to conspire with" Russia's interference in the 2016 elections. Waldman's column asked: "Who knows what sort of aid Russia and North Korea will give to the Trump campaign now that he has invited them to offer their assistance?"

The president's lawsuit refers to special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. The suit maintains that the final report "concluded there was no conspiracy between the [2016] Campaign and the Russian government, and no United States person intentionally coordinated with Russia's efforts."

The Mueller report did say it "did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in the election interference activities." But it also concluded that "the campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts."

First Amendment scholars tell NPR that prominent public officials must meet a tough legal standard to win defamation cases, especially those involving opinion pieces. That's even more true for the nation's chief executive, who is expected to be subject to widespread public criticism and scrutiny.

However, publications can be held liable for incorrect statements of fact made within opinion columns in which publishers are believed to have acted with "reckless disregard" or "actual malice" as defined under the law. The New York Times is still defending itself in a defamation suit by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who was incorrectly linked to the shooting of then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in a 2017 editorial. The newspaper later corrected the assertion and tweeted an apology from its opinion section account. Its lawyers have called it an honest mistake.

The decision to have the Trump-Pence campaign sue on behalf of the president allows the president's costs to be borne by a special account funded by donors.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Trump's reelection campaign announced yesterday that it is suing The Washington Post. They're claiming defamation in two opinion pieces published last year. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik is here to walk us through it. Hi, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So explain what was in those two op-ed pieces - those opinion pieces, rather, and the claims being made by the president's reelection team.

FOLKENFLIK: Right. Well, these were a pair of opinion pieces that were published last June by liberal commentators, both of them in different ways - or slightly different ways taking inspiration from an interview President Trump gave to ABC's George Stephanopoulos in which he said he, basically - yeah, you know, if a foreign government gave him help to - in the 2020 election, he'd probably consider it pretty seriously. Greg Sargent wrote that Robert Mueller, in his report - the special counsel - concluded that Trump and - or his campaign had encouraged, tried to - eagerly encouraged, tried to conspire with and happily profited off the efforts by the Russians.

A week later, Paul Waldman wrote, who knows what sort of aid Russia and North Korea will give to the Trump campaign now he's invited them to offer their assistance? The Trump campaign accused that of being false and defamatory, said there was never any invitation - the one column's talking about the 2016 race; the second column talking about what might happen in this election year.

MARTIN: And this isn't the only lawsuit, right? They took action against The New York Times last week.

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah. No, these seem very much like pairs in a twin set, the efforts - the president suing the two - two of the three or two of the most important newspapers in the country and, in fact, the world.

MARTIN: So, I mean, I know you're not an expert on libel laws, but you're pretty close. So can you explain how strong is the president's case?

FOLKENFLIK: Not that strong. I've talked to a number of media lawyers. You know, they're going to argue that the newspapers didn't follow their own reporting closely enough, that the Mueller - they're - in fact, the president's lawyers are arguing that the Mueller report exonerated them. That's not precisely what the Mueller report did; it said it didn't have evidence to sustain an indictment for conspiracy.

And in fact, if you think about it, these are opinion pieces. There's a lot of latitude given under media law for people to express opinions, especially for public officials and really especially for the president of the United States, who, from the republic's founding, has expected that he or she would receive a lot of public criticism.

MARTIN: But even if the president's legal footing is shaky on these suits, I mean, it clearly still fits into his brand. He clearly believes he'll derive some political benefit from just going through the motions here.

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah. I think that this is much more a part of a political strategy than it is a legal strategy, and it fits, as you say, into his rhetoric. Think of the reporters who at times have had their credentials yanked from covering the White House or events or political events by the president and his campaign over the years. Think about the question of whether the president's political interest led the administration to intervene against the parent company of CNN, now AT&T, when it sought to acquire Time Warner, or to punish Jeff Bezos' Amazon because of how president is upset with the coverage that's in The Washington Post, which itself is owned personally by Jeff Bezos. People have made the link to the question of government contracts for Amazon.

So this fits into a larger strategy, and it fits into the president's ability to say, these guys are the enemy; in fact, in some ways, they've been libeling me all along.

MARTIN: All right. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik for us on this story. David, thank you. We appreciate it.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE GREG FOAT GROUP'S "THE DANCERS WALTZ") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.