Democratic presidential frontrunner Sen. Bernie Sanders denounced the behavior of President Donald Trump on Wednesday after the president’s reelection campaign filed a libel lawsuit against the New York Times for an op-ed it published last year.
“Let’s be clear,” Sanders said in a statement, “we have a president who believes he is above the law and can do and say whatever he wants without consequences. Donald Trump has ignored the Constitution, disregarded the will of Congress, and attacked the judiciary.”
The president, Sanders continued, “has called the press the ‘enemy of the people,’ and now—taking a page from his dictator friends around the world—is trying to dismantle the right to a free press in the First Amendment by suing the New York Times for publishing an opinion column about his dangerous relationship with Russia.”
The lawsuit (pdf) was filed by the president’s 2020 campaign and asserts the Times unlawfully defamed Trump by publishing an op-ed in March of 2019, written by the newspaper’s former executive editor Max Frankel, that speculated “the real Trump-Russia quid pro quo” didn’t need to be proven in a court of law or in Congress, but that the tacit agreement between Trump and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin could be perceived by examining both private and public communications known at the time.
“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,” Frankel wrote. “The Trumpites knew about the quid and held out the prospect of the quo.”
As Axios reports, the Trump lawsuit, which was filed in the New York State Supreme Court, “claims the article falsely reports a conspiracy between Trump and Russia and that the Times knowingly published a false narrative.”
In their filing, Trump’s lawyers argue that the lawsuit is needed to “publicly establish the truth, properly inform The Times’ readers (and the rest of the world) of the true facts, and seek appropriate remedies for the harm caused by The Times’ intentional false reporting.”
Trump, many have noted, has a long history of filing libel lawsuits against news outlets and individuals—though he often fails to follow through with them.
“This suit will be tossed out immediately,” said legal analyst and journalist Jeffrey Toobin. “It’s a publicity stunt.”
Brian Hauss, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, called the lawsuit “completely meritless,” in a statement to Common Dreams.
“A publisher cannot be held liable for commentary based on public facts,” Hauss explained. “If the law were any different, President Trump himself could be held liable for asserting that the Democrats colluded with Russia.”
The Freedom of the Press Foundation characterized the suit as just the latest escalation in Trump’s attacks on journalism:
BREAKING: Escalating his battle with the press, Trump campaign sues the New York Times for libel over a March 2019 opinion piece on Russian election interference https://t.co/W2cPey9uiM
— Freedom of the Press (@FreedomofPress) February 26, 2020
In response to the suit, a spokesperson for the Times said: “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 judgement and conclusions, especially about events of public importance. We look forward to vindicating that right in this case.”
For his part, Sanders charged that the effort by Trump fits a pattern of authoritarian behavior by the president—whom he vowed to defeat at the polls in November.
“Enough,” he declared. “Donald Trump is the most dangerous president in modern history, and this November we will defeat him, restore the rule of law, and protect our constitutional rights.”