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Judge Throws Out Trump Campaign’s Defamation Lawsuit Against New York Times Over Russia ‘Quid Pro Quo’ Op-Ed

The New York Times won the dismissal of the lawsuit filed by former President Donald Trump’s campaign over the op-ed “The Real Trump-Russia Quid Pro Quo” on Tuesday, with a Manhattan judge finding the column was “nonactionable opinion” and the complaint failed to show actual malice.

“The court made clear today a fundamental point about press freedom: we should not tolerate libel suits that are brought by people in power intending to silence and intimidate those who scrutinize them,” New York Times general counsel David McCraw told Law&Crime in an email.

“We are pleased that the court has delivered that message powerfully today,” he added.

Published just before the release of the Mueller report—but after former Attorney General Bill Barr’s selectively quoted summary of it—the Times column by former executive editor Max Frankel ran an emphatic subhead: “The campaign and the Kremlin had an overarching deal: help beat Hillary Clinton for a new pro-Russian foreign policy.”

Though former special counsel Robert Mueller ultimately did not confirm criminal coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, his report made clear that the two shared common goals.

“Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities,” the report’s introduction said.

A little more than a year ago, the Trump campaign sued the Times, calling the allegations of a “quid pro quo” and a “deal” with Russia defamatory.

“The Times was well aware when it published these statements that they were not true,” the lawsuit alleged. “The Times’ own previous reporting had confirmed the falsity of these statements.”

Widely panned as a political stunt when filed last February, the complaint was quickly dismissed with prejudice by Manhattan Supreme Court Judge James E. d’Auguste in a three-page ruling.

One of the reasons for the failure of the Trump campaign’s suit was technical: The wrong plaintiff filed it, the judge found.

“Here, the focus of Mr. Frankel’s column was the former President’s associates and family members,not the Trump campaign itself,” the ruling states.

Even if the column were not an opinion piece—and the appropriate party filed the lawsuit—the claims still would not take off because of the broad press-freedom protections known as the actual malice test.

Under the landmark decision New York Times v. Sullivan, public figures must prove that an allegedly false statement was made maliciously in order to qualify as defamatory. Various New York State precedents have upheld and fortified that standard.

“This heavy burden exists because news organizations function as a platform for facilitating constitutionally protected speech on issues of public concern and courts will not impose defamation liability against these entities absent a clear showing of actual malice,” the opinion states.

The Trump campaign’s lawyer Charles J. Harder did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Read the ruling below:

[Image via YouTube screengrab]

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Law&Crime's senior investigative reporter and editor Adam Klasfeld has spent more than a decade on the legal beat. Previously a reporter for Courthouse News, he has appeared as a guest on MSNBC, BBC, NPR, PBS, Sky News, and other networks.