Trump campaign loses defamation lawsuit against New York Times over Russia ‘quid pro quo’ op-ed

A judge on Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit by former President Donald Trump‘s campaign that accused The New York Times of defaming it with a 2019 opinion column arguing there was a “quid pro quo” between the campaign and Russia in 2016.

The dismissal, by Manhattan state Supreme Court Judge James d’Auguste, was with prejudice. That means the Trump campaign cannot refile the lawsuit over the op-ed, written by former Times executive editor Max Frankel.

The suit by Donald J. Trump For President Inc., which was filed in February 2020, had sought damages of millions of dollars.

It alleged that the Times published false and defamatory claims in the op-ed, headlined “The Real Trump-Russia Quid Pro Quo,” with the “intentional purpose” of damaging Trump’s reelection chances last year.

But d’Auguste, in a three-page ruling, briskly detailed the fatal flaws in the suit that led him to toss the case at the request of the newspaper.

The judge wrote that Frankel’s column was legally protected opinion and that the suit failed to establish that Frankel had written his column with “actual malice.”

And, d’Auguste said, the campaign in any event did not have the legal standing to file the suit.

However, the judge denied a request by the Times that he impose monetary sanctions on the campaign for the suit.

David McCraw, senior vice president and deputy general counsel for the Times, said, “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.”

“We are pleased that the court has delivered that message powerfully,” McCraw said.

Charles Harder, the lawyer who represented the Trump campaign in the suit, and Jason Miller, a spokesman for the former president, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the dismissal.

Harder also had represented the campaign in a similar defamation lawsuit against CNN for a 2019 opinion piece related to Russia’s election interference. A federal judge dismissed that suit in November, ruling that the campaign’s claim that CNN acted in malice was not plausible.

A third defamation suit Harder filed for the campaign against The Washington Post over two 2019 opinion articles about the campaign allegedly benefiting from Russian assistance remains pending in federal court in Washington.

In the first paragraph of his Times op-ed, Frankel wrote: “There was no need for detailed electoral collusion between the Trump campaign and Vladimir Putin’s oligarchy because they 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.”

“The Trumpites knew about the quid and held out the prospect of the quo,” Frankel wrote.

The column was published as then-special counsel Robert Mueller was investigating possible coordination between the campaign and Russia, whose agents had hacked and released emails from the Democratic presidential nominee Clinton’s campaign manager and the Democratic National Committee in 2016.

Mueller, in a report released shortly after the op-ed, said there was not enough evidence to conclude that Trump’s campaign “coordinated or conspired with the Russian government in its election-interference activities.”

However, the special counsel also found that the campaign “welcomed” the potential to damage Clinton’s campaign that came from the release of emails stolen by Russian agents, and noted that Trump at a rally had said he “hoped Russia would recover emails described as missing from a private server used by Clinton when she was Secretary of State.”

D’Auguste said in his ruling dismissing the campaign’s suit that the op-ed was “nonactionable opinion.”

“And the overall context in which the article was published, in the opinion section of the newspaper, signaled to the reader that ‘the broader social context and surrounding circumstances [indicate] that what is being read … is likely to be opinion, not fact,'” wrote d’Auguste, quoting from a federal appeals court ruling in another lawsuit filed against the Times.

The judge also said that the suit had to be tossed because the statements challenged by the campaign are not “of and concerning” the plaintiff — the campaign itself — “which is a necessary element for a defamation action.”

“A corporate entity has no standing to sue over statements that concern an entity’s employees or affiliates, but not the entity itself,” d’Auguste wrote.

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

Finally, even if Frankel’s comments were legally actionable as factual assertions and if those assertions were concerning the Trump campaign, “the complaint fails to allege facts sufficient to support the requirement that the Times published the challenged statements with actual malice,” the judge wrote.

“In this regard, bias, or ulterior motive does not constitute actual malice,” d’Auguste wrote.

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