Defamation Threat Against CNN

When Donald Trump sent a letter notifying CNN of his intent to file a defamation lawsuit over its claims that he has lied about the 2020 election, I trust that the network’s attorneys reacted appropriately. By that, I mean they laughed so hard that their law school diplomas fell off the walls.

You don’t need to have passed the bar exam to know that no one at CNN will lose sleep over his demand that the network “publish a full and fair correction, apology, or retraction” of dozens of statements accusing him of a cynical campaign of deceit. Trump is more likely to win the Olympic decathlon than to prevail in this dispute.

In the first place, he has a history of empty bluster about alleged defamation. During the 2016 campaign, the website FiveThirtyEight reported, he threatened some 20 such lawsuits, most of which never came to pass. When 10 women accused him of sexual assault and other sexual misconduct (a number that later grew), he vowed to seek justice.

“All of these liars will be sued after the election is over,” Trump promised.

Sure they would. In fact, it was Trump who found himself on the business end of a lawsuit by E. Jean Carroll, who attested that he raped her. She accused him of defamation for claiming that she was lying, and a trial is scheduled for February. In May, the judge overseeing the case faulted Trump for “bad faith” in trying to delay the proceedings, and he may have to provide a DNA sample.

He has good reasons for rarely backing up his words with legal action. As Los Angeles lawyer Lisa Bloom tweeted in 2016, “If Trump sues accusers we then have subpoena power to require not only Trump but all his enablers to appear for depositions. A field day.”

He does occasionally follow through, but to little avail. He filed a suit against CNN over an opinion piece arguing that he should be prosecuted for soliciting help from Russia during the 2016 campaign, and a judge consigned it to the circular file. He sued The New York Times over an opinion piece alleging that his campaign had a tacit deal with the Russian government; he lost.

He sued author Timothy O’Brien for writing that Trump, who claimed a net worth of at least $5 billion, was worth $250 million, max. In ruling against Trump, the judge noted his casual regard for facts. When asked in a deposition how he calculates his net worth, Trump replied: “I would say it’s my general attitude at the time that the question may be asked.

And as I say, it varies.”

There is no reason to believe Trump would fare better against CNN. (Full disclosure: My daughter works there but is at no apparent risk of being sued by Trump.) He claims the network has sullied his good name by labeling his accounts of a stolen, rigged election as lies — and even “the Big Lie.” But his excuses are enough to make a turtle laugh.

His lawyers insist he can’t be lying because he “subjectively believes that the results of the 2020 presidential election turned on fraudulent voting activity in several key states.” They note that Webster’s dictionary defines “lie” as “an assertion of something known or believed by the speaker to be untrue with intent to deceive.”

But Merriam-Webster offers another definition: “an untrue or inaccurate statement that may or may not be believed true by the speaker or writer.” There is also a Himalayan-sized mountain of evidence that Trump knows he’s peddling falsehoods. His campaign manager, attorney general and White House lawyers, among others, told him the election was not stolen. His campaign’s efforts to prove the fraud in court went nowhere.

When he called Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger seeking to overturn the outcome in that state, he said, “I just want to find 11,780 votes” — which just happened to be the number needed for him to overtake Joe Biden. He didn’t care about voting irregularities. He cared about winning.

Trump’s voluminous record of lying about matters he understands well would be a handicap in this lawsuit. The Washington Post documented more than 30,000 “false or misleading claims” during his four years in office.

Would a judge or jury considering his claims about CNN and weighing the evidence buy the idea of Trump as a determined teller of truth? If he believes that, he’s lying to himself.


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Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune. His twice-a-week column on national and international affairs, distributed by Creators Syndicate, appears in some 50 papers across the country.