A Donald Trump-appointed federal judge on Thursday dismissed a libel lawsuit filed by the president’s re-election campaign, which alleged that CNN intentionally published false statements about the administration’s solicitation of election assistance from foreign governments. The decision marks yet another legal defeat for the president in the week since he lost the election to Democratic challenger Joe Biden.
The lawsuit—filed in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of Georgia—stemmed from an op-ed penned by former general counsel of the Federal Election Commission Larry Noble headlined, “Soliciting dirt on your opponents from a foreign government is a crime. Mueller should have charged Trump campaign officials with it.”
United States District Judge Michael L. Brown reasoned that while the piece appeared under the “Opinion” section on CNN’s website, Noble did appear make a “statement of fact” when he wrote that, “The Trump campaign assessed the potential risks and benefits of again seeking Russia’s help in 2020 and has decided to leave that option on the table.”
According to Brown, such a statement is “capable of being proven true or false.”
“Either Plaintiff conducted an assessment regarding ‘the potential risks and benefits of again seeking Russia’s help in 2020’ or it did not. Similarly, either Plaintiff ‘decided to leave that option on the table’ or it did not,” he wrote.
He also compared the statement to others made in the op-ed that clearly contained language meant to signal to readers that they were not reading a factual account.
“The Statement itself contains no such qualifying language—it simply asserts that the Trump campaign assessed potential risks against potential benefits and decided to leave the possibility of help from Russia on the table,” he wrote. “It does not say Plaintiff ‘may have’ conducted such an assessment or that it ‘might have’ made a decision. It does not say that Mr. Noble ‘fears’ Plaintiff did either of these things or that statements by people connected to the campaign ‘suggest’ it did so. The Statement has no such qualifying or softening language.”
However, according to Brown, the suit failed because the Trump campaign failed to plausibly allege that the statement was made with “actual malice,” which means that the allegedly libelous statement was made “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”
“Most of the allegations in the complaint regarding actual malice are conclusory. Plaintiff, for example, alleges in a purely conclusory manner that Defendants ‘clearly had a malicious motive’ and ‘knowingly disregarded all . . . information when it published the Defamatory Article,’” Brown wrote. “Allegations such as these amount to little more than ‘[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements,’ which are insufficient to support a cause of action.”
While Brown dismissed the current complaint, he did allow the Trump campaign the opportunity to file an amended complaint that sufficiently alleges the statements were made with actual malice.