On Friday, Donald Trump lost again in court. This time, it was in a $475 million defamation lawsuit he brought against CNN alleging that the network damaged his reputation by falsely describing his refrain about 2020 ballot fraud as the “Big Lie.”
His aim in bringing this action was political more than legal. He wanted revenge against CNN — and to be able to tout, on the campaign trail, a court’s judgment that his debunked claims that the 2020 election was stolen were in fact not big lies.
He got the exact opposite of what he wanted.
Judge Raag Singhal, a conservative federal district judge, delivered a particularly stinging blow to the man who appointed him and who has made political hay by attacking the media in general and CNN in particular. Singhal stood up to the former president just as other Trump-appointed judges have repeatedly done.
Singhal’s opinion offers a civics lesson that likely will be lost on Trump. The judge defended press freedom and insisted that in a constitutional democracy facts and legal principles matter, things the former president seems incapable of understanding.
Notably, Trump’s latest setback occurred notwithstanding his shameless “judge shopping” — Trump filed this suit in the Southern District of Florida, where four in five of the district court judges were appointed by him.
As for his courtroom losing streak, it’s hard to square that with his 2016 campaign boasts that he’d “start winning” for America so often that “people are gonna get sick of it.”
That boast has not fared well in his lawsuits. To claim that a news outlet, its writers, hosts and contributing scholars — including NYU historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat, an expert on authoritarianism and author of “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present” — had defamed him by calling out his “Big Lie” took a special brand of chutzpah.
Trump, who has made baseless accusations and political defamation his stock in trade, wanted CNN to pay him millions in damages. He contended that the network had wrongly associated his name with those of Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, the infamous Nazi propaganda minister.
Goebbels is frequently credited with the line, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
Trump has certainly followed that strategy, in large part by continually repeating his claim that the 2020 election was stolen by Joe Biden and the Democrats, with the aid of sinister outside forces. Indeed, it’s his political brand.
He has continued to make this assertion long after he was told he had lost by then-Attorney General Bill Barr, as well as Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, his longtime aide Kellyanne Conway, his own daughter, Ivanka Trump, and two research firms hired by his campaign.
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Reportedly, in the aftermath of the 2020 election, Trump him said in a White House meeting that he didn’t want the American people to know that “we lost“?
Judge Singhal gave his response to all this, writing that CNN journalists and commentators calling out Trump’s “Big Lie” were not making “factually false statements.” Rather, they were stating opinions — and opinions, even those one may find “odious and repugnant,” as the judge noted, cannot form the basis for a defamation action.
A free press not only must be able to report the news but also, as the Digital Media Law Project puts it, “to voice opinions, criticize others, and comment on matters of public interest.”
Moreover, Singhal’s decision states, “CNN’s use of the phrase ‘the Big Lie’ in connection with Trump’s election challenges does not,” as Trump alleged, “give rise to a plausible inference that Trump advocates the persecution and genocide of Jews or any other group of people.”
This ruling is especially noteworthy from a conservative judge who appears to share Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch’s view that New York Times v. Sullivan, the landmark defamation case, should be overturned.
This ruling is especially noteworthy from a judge so conservative that he supports the apparent view of Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch that New York Times v. Sullivan, the 1964 Supreme Court decision that established protections for journalists in defamation cases, should be overturned. Trump agrees with this view and wants to make it easier to sue reporters and media outlets by getting rid of Sullivan.
That seminal First Amendment ruling provides “breathing room” for news organizations by protecting them from defamation suits unless their published statements about public official figures are “knowingly false or made in reckless disregard of the truth.” The Sullivan decision ensures a lively fourth estate that unafraid to be critical of powerful people such as Trump, or for that matter Joe Biden or any other prominent public figure.
Despite Judge Singhal’s critical view of Sullivan, he was careful to note that the 1964 decision is still “looked upon with favor by a majority” of the Supreme Court. He correctly recognized that he was bound by precedent to reject Trump’s request that he hold Sullivan inapplicable in his case.
In the end, Singhal offered a much needed and vigorous defense of the press that stands in sharp contrast to Trump’s characterization of it as “the enemy of the people.” Trump learned once again that his legal dogs won’t hunt in courts of law, and he will just have to learn live in a country where CNN and other media outlets can go on calling his election hoax what it is, a Big Lie.
on Donald J. Trump’s legal problems