President Trump still seems to be pretty touchy about any suggestion of Russian election interference — so much so that his reelection campaign is suing a newspaper for libel for the second time in a week.
After years of bark-but-no-bite whining about critical media coverage, Trump’s campaign filed a complaint against The Washington Post Tuesday over a pair of opinion pieces from last June that warned Trump could invite more election meddling in 2020. Last week they sued the New York Times.
To prove defamation of a public figure, you have to clear an extremely high legal bar. But Trump’s lawyers — including one who helped vaporize Gawker Media — argue that the Post hit that bar with the two clearly labeled and caveated blog posts.
“The complaint alleges The Post was aware of the falsity at the time it published them, but did so for the intentional purpose of hurting the campaign, while misleading its own readers in the process,” campaign legal adviser Jenna Ellis said in a statement.
It’s the second time in a week the president’s camp has taken aim at a news outlet for opinions he doesn’t like. The campaign similarly sued The New York Times for a largely forgotten op-ed suggesting that Trump effectively colluded with Russia, if not criminally, in 2016.
Tuesday’s complaint, filed in part by the notorious media attorney Charles Harder, likewise centers on narrow and literal interpretations of the Post columns.
Trump’s lawyers first take issue with a June 2019 blog from Greg Sargent, a liberal opinion writer, highlighting how Trump has signaled his openness to foreign interference in 2020. They zero in on a line saying that special counsel Robert Mueller concluded “Trump and/or his campaign…tried to conspire with” the Kremlin.
It’s an apparent reference to shady communications between the Trump campaign and Russian nationals that included the infamous July 2016 meeting in Trump Tower. But the lawsuit leaves out the very next line in Sargent’s column. “Yet Mueller did not find sufficient evidence of a criminal conspiracy,” he wrote.
The Trump lawyers’ reading of a June 2019 blog by Paul Waldman, who also leans left, is similarly fishy. It underscores a hypothetical question about the president’s reelection chances.
“The 2020 election will obviously be distinct in all kinds of ways we can’t yet anticipate,” Waldman wrote. “For instance, 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 lawsuit further argued that the Post had a “malicious motive” in framing the arguments because it tends to endorse Democrats and employs liberal writers like Waldman and Sargent.
“It’s disappointing to see the president’s campaign committee resorting to these types of tactics and we will vigorously defend this case,” Kris Coratti, a spokesperson for the Post, said in a statement.
Jonathan Peters, a media law professor at the University of Georgia, told VICE News in an email that while statements of opinion are not exempt from libel law, the Supreme Court has established broad protections for such speech provided that readers understand the context. “All of which is to say,” he added, “this is not a winning suit, but it’s of a piece with Trump’s efforts to attack and delegitimize the press as an institution.”
That might be the point: Even if these lawsuits don’t move forward, they’ve already generated positive coverage in right-wing media and could excite the president’s base.
Cover: President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media before leaving the White House, Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in Washington, to visit the National Institutes of Health’s Vaccine Research Center in Bethesda, Md. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)