Donald Trump And Charles Harder Continue Their Assault On The 1st Amendment, Suing The Washington Post – Techdirt

Posted: March 5, 2020 at 6:21 pm

from the opening-up-our-libel-laws dept

It appears whatever modest amount of restraint that our President had regarding his early promise to "open up our libel laws" have gone away. As you may recall, during the campaign he made such a promise, perhaps not realizing that defamation laws are not under the purview of the federal government -- and any changes at the state level are limited by the 1st Amendment of the Constitution (not something he can write away with an executive order). Right before he was inaugurated, he seemed to back down a little on that promise -- telling the NY Times that someone had pointed out to him that with more open libel laws, he was more likely to get sued as well.

Over the first three years of his Presidency, while constantly lashing out ridiculously at the press, and the Washington Post and the NY Times in particular -- including his constant authoritarian attack of calling them "the enemy of the people" -- he had not sued. Until last week when he tapped lawyer Charles Harder (who, we'll remind you, was the lawyer in the lawsuit against us), to represent the Trump Campaign (rather than Donald directly) to sue the NY Times over an opinion piece. Trump and Harder have now done so again, this time suing the Washington Post over two opinion pieces.

The complaint -- like the one against the NY Times -- is laughable and will be thrown out of court. Again, opinions are not defamatory, and the articles were opinion pieces. The statements they make, that the Trump campaign declares defamatory are basically all ones based on disclosed facts. The complaint is short and not very detailed. It highlights just a single line in each post that it claims is defamatory:

On or about June 13, 2019, The Post published the article entitled Trump just invited another Russian attack. Mitch McConnell is making one more likely (the June 13 Article), by Greg Sargent, which contained the defamatory claim that Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded that the Campaign tried to conspire with a sweeping and systematic attack by Russia against the 2016 United States presidential election.

The statement in the June 13 Article is false and defamatory. In fact, Special Counsel Muellers Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election released on or about April 18, 2019 (the Mueller Report), nearly two months before the June 13 Article, came to the opposite conclusion of the June 13 Article, namely, the Mueller Report concluded there was no conspiracy between the Campaign and the Russian government, and no United States person intentionally coordinated with Russias efforts to interfere with the 2016 election.

On or about June 20, 2019, The Post published the article entitled Trump: I can win reelection with just my base (the June 20 Article), by Paul Waldman, which contains the defamatory statement 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 statement in the June 20 Article is false and defamatory. There has never been any statement by anyone associated with the Campaign or the administration inviting Russia or North Korea to assist the Campaign in 2019 or beyond. There also has never been any reporting that the Campaign has ever had any contact with North Korea relating to any United States election.

These are both issues that are subject to interpretation, and neither piece comes anywhere even remotely close to the necessary standard for defamation of a public figure (which, uh, the President absolutely is). On the first one, Harder is leaning heavily on the "conspiracy" word. While the Report did not show direct coordination between the campaign and the Russians, it did show multiple connection points. Indeed, the report itself says:

The investigation alsoidentified numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump Campaign. Althoughthe investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trumppresidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefitelectorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did notestablish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russiangovernment in its election interference activities.

So this comes down to interpretation. The Mueller report showed links between the Russians and the Campaign, but did not find enough evidence to prove a conspiracy -- which is not definitive evidence of no conspiracy. Indeed, the report shows multiple situations in which members of the Trump Campaign appeared interested in working with the Russian government -- but not enough evidence of an actual conspiracy was found. But to say that's evidence of no effort to conspire is just silly. The opinion piece's summary of that as "tried to conspire" is... not anywhere near defamatory, in which case the Post would have to have believed this was false or published it with reckless disregard for the truth. That's... not the case.

On the second one, I'll note, with amusement, that the final sentence only mentions North Korea as a government that the Trump Campaign has not discussed the election with and leaves out Russia. Interesting. But, more to the point, the article in question was discussing a Trump interview with George Stephanopoulos in which Trump is asked if he'd accept damaging information on election opponents from foreign nations, and Trump replied:

"I think you might want to listen, there isn't anything wrong with listening," Trump continued. "If somebody called from a country, Norway, [and said] we have information on your opponent' -- oh, I think I'd want to hear it."

That is easily, and fairly, turned into the statement in the Post opinion piece that the Campaign was "inviting" foreign help. There is no way that such a statement could or would be seen as defamatory.

In the meantime, I feel the need to remind both Harder and Trump that not too long ago, in defending Trump against a defamation lawsuit in which Trump was the defendant, Harder wrote a stirring statement in support of the 1st Amendment and warned that:

A defamation standard that turns typical political rhetoric into actionable defamation would chill expression that is central to the First Amendment and political speech.

I wish the two of them would remember that sometimes.

Filed Under: 1st amendment, anti-slapp, charles harder, defamation, donald trump, free speech, slappCompanies: washington post

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