Trump campaign sues New York Times in libel lawsuit involving opinion piece on Russia

Savannah Behrmann, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump's re-election campaign has filed a libel lawsuit against the New York Times for publishing an opinion piece on the topic of Russian involvement in the 2016 election. 

The lawsuit, filed in New York State Supreme Court on Wednesday, claims the newspaper intentionally published a false story in 2019 related to the investigation into Russia interference of the election.  

A New York Times spokesperson told USA TODAY that, "The Trump Campaign has turned to the courts to try to punish an opinion writer for having an opinion they find unacceptable."

"Fortunately, the law protects the right of Americans to express their judgments and conclusions, especially about events of public importance. We look forward to vindicating that right in this case," the statement continued.

The Trump campaign is seeking millions of dollars in damage, taking issue with an op-ed from last March written by Max Frankel, the former executive editor of the newspaper: "The Real Trump-Russia Quid Pro Quo."

The op-ed argues that there was an agreement between Russia and Trump's campaign to assist him in getting elected. The opinions section of The Times operates separately from its newsgathering operation and exists specifically to allow people a platform for expressing their point of view.  

“There was no need for detailed electoral collusion between the Trump campaign and Vladimir Putin’s oligarchy because they had an overarching deal," the op-ed reads. "[T]he 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."

A statement from the campaign states they wish "to hold the news organization accountable for intentionally publishing false statements" against Trump's campaign. 

Jenna Ellis, Senior Legal Adviser to the Donald J. Trump for President campaign, said, "The statements were and are 100 percent false and defamatory. The complaint alleges The Times was aware of the falsity at the time it published them, but did so for the intentional purpose of hurting the campaign, while misleading its own readers in the process.”

The op-ed was published on March 27, 2019, before the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's full 448-page report to the public in April. The op-ed was written three days after Attorney General William Barr sent a letter of his summary of Mueller's investigation to Congress. 

Mueller spent two years investigating Russian interference in the presidential election and whether Trump obstructed the inquiry that consumed Washington. 

The report details that Trump's campaign showed interest in benefiting from Russian government efforts to sway the 2016 presidential election in his favor, but investigators did not find evidence that directly linked Trump to any crimes.

The lawsuit claims that the newspaper's own previous reporting "confirmed the falsity of these statements." 

"But The Times published these statements anyway, knowing them to be false, and knowing it would misinform and mislead its own readers, because of The Times’ extreme bias against and animosity toward the Campaign," the lawsuit says.

Trump has maintained his attacks on the media through the duration of his presidency, denouncing coverage he dislikes as "fake news." He has threatened to sue other media companies before. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT., who is running for the Democratic nomination to compete against Trump in November, blasted the campaign for the lawsuit, saying Trump, "now – taking a page from his dictator friends around the world – is trying to dismantle the right to a free press." 

Since the 1964 New York Times Co. V. Sullivan decision, the government found that to sustain a claim of libel: "Factual error, content defamatory of official reputation, or both, are insufficient to warrant an award of damages for false statements unless 'actual malice' -- knowledge that statements are false or in reckless disregard of the truth -- is alleged and proved."  

Brian Hauss, staff attorney with the ACLU's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project called the lawsuit "completely meritless."

"A publisher cannot be held liable for commentary based on public facts. If the law were any different, President Trump himself could be held liable for asserting that the Democrats colluded with Russia," he continued.

Contributing: William Cummings, Christal Hayes 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump campaign sues New York Times in libel lawsuit on Russia coverage