Commentary

Will Trump Lawsuits Have Chilling Effect On Publishers?

President Trump's re-election campaign this week filed its second libel lawsuit within a six-day period against a newspaper, taking a more aggressive stance against the news media the president once described as an "enemy of the people."

While the Trump campaign faces a daunting challenge in proving its allegations, the lawsuits may have a chilling effect on how newspapers cover the president as he stumps for a second term.

After suing The New York Times for libel last week, the campaign on Tuesday filed suit against The Washington Post, accusing the newspaper of printing "false and defamatory statements" in two op-eds that discussed the campaign and Russia.

Both columns referred to Trump's remarks in a televised interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos. During the interview, the president defended the idea of accepting damaging information about political opponents from foreign governments.

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In response, liberal commentator Greg Sargent wrote in WaPo that "Trump and/or his campaign....tried to conspire with" Russia's interference in the 2016 elections.

In a separate column, progressive commentator Paul Waldman posed the question: "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 Trump campaign's lawsuit argues that former Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election "concluded there was no conspiracy between the [2016] Campaign and the Russian government, and no United States person intentionally coordinated with Russia's efforts."

While Mueller's report said its investigation didn't "establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in the election interference activities," it also concluded "the campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts."

In that context, it’s hard to see how the Trump campaign will prove WaPo's opinion writers defamed the president by recklessly disregarding the truth.

Having participated in a successful defense of a libel lawsuit brought against a publication I edited, I can foresee how Trump's claims may dissuade newspapers from publishing op-eds critical of his administration.

It's a common tactic to blame a newspaper for a "systematic pattern of bias," as Trump's lawyers have done, to attack the credibility of WaPo's editors. If the lawsuit ever reaches the discovery phase, those editors can expect Trump's lawyers to vilify them in depositions.

Even if the Trump's lawsuit is dismissed, as I expect it will be, a libel defense can be a significant distraction for any newspaper. It can also dissuade publishers from their mission: scrutinizing the actions of public officials.

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