President Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign on Wednesday escalated its feud with the news media to new heights, filing a libel lawsuit against The New York Times in which it alleged the newspaper “knowingly published false and defamatory statements” in a March 2019 opinion piece.
In a statement, a spokesperson for The Times said, “The Trump Campaign has turned to the courts to try to punish an opinion writer for having an opinion they find unacceptable.”
“Fortunately,” the spokesperson added, “the law protects the right of Americans to express their judgments and conclusions, especially about events of public importance. We look forward to vindicating that right in this case.”
The March 2019 piece at issue, written by Max Frankel, a former executive editor of The Times, was titled “The Real Trump-Russia Quid Pro Quo.” It was published in The Times’ opinion section, which is separate from the organization’s newsroom and falls under different leadership.
Frankel’s piece argued that “there was no need for detailed electoral collusion between the Trump campaign and Vladimir Putin’s oligarchy.”
Frankel contended that the Trump campaign and Putin “had an overarching deal: the quid of help in the campaign against Hillary Clinton for the quo of a new pro-Russian foreign policy, starting with relief from the Obama administration’s burdensome economic sanctions.”
When reached for comment by phone on Wednesday, Frankel declined to comment, telling CNN Business, “I’m going to leave that to The Times.”
The Trump campaign alleged in its lawsuit that The Times was “well aware when it published these statements that they were not true.”
The Trump campaign further alleged The Times published the opinion piece “knowing it would misinform and mislead its own readers” because the newspaper harbors “extreme bias and animosity” toward the Trump campaign.
Trump has brutally attacked the press as President. He has regularly suggested that news organizations print “fake news” to make him and his administration look bad, even going as far to say on some occasions that journalists make up sources to support their stories. But his campaign’s lawsuit against The Times represented a new turn in his offense against the news media.
As supporting evidence, the Trump campaign in its lawsuit cited previous news articles published by The Times about the meeting Donald Trump Jr. participated in with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower. The lawsuit noted that The Times had been provided a statement from Trump Jr. in which he said the meeting “provided no meaningful information.”
The Trump campaign also claimed that The Times published Frankel’s opinion piece ahead of the release of former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report into Russian interference in the 2016 election because the newspaper knew it “was likely to exonerate the Campaign from allegations of collusion.”
Mueller’s report found that members of the Trump campaign knew they would benefit from Russia’s illegal actions to influence the election, but didn’t take criminal steps to help.
“Once the Mueller Report was released, The Times knew that any claims of conspiracy would not be credible,” the lawsuit said. “Thus, by publishing the Defamatory Article in March 2019, The Times sought to damage the Campaign before the Mueller Report would be released debunking the conspiracy claims.”
Representing the Trump campaign in the lawsuit is attorney Charles Harder, who is known for targeting media organizations and was the lawyer in the suit that effectively bankrupted Gawker, and who currently represents Trump. The suit was filed in New York state court.
Legal experts were critical of the Trump campaign’s lawsuit.
Jeffrey Toobin, CNN’s chief legal analyst, said in an email that it was “completely ridiculous as a lawsuit.”
“The Times did not assert it as fact. They cited reports, which is perfectly permissible,” Toobin said. “This suit will be tossed out immediately. It’s a publicity stunt.”
Ted Boutrous, a prominent First Amendment attorney who represented both CNN and Playboy magazine during legal disputes with the White House, said that the lawsuit was “yet another egregious example of Trump abusing the judicial process to chill freedom of speech and of the press.”
“This column is opinion based on disclosed facts about issues of great public concern relating to the President,” Boutrous tweeted. “The First Amendment unequivocally bars this lawsuit.”