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Trump sues CNN for defamation, seeks $475 million in damages

Donald Trump during a 2015 Republican primary debate hosted by CNN. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

Former president Donald Trump sued CNN on Monday, alleging defamation and seeking $475 million in punitive damages, a move that escalates his conflict with U.S. news organizations that have critically reported on his career.

The 29-page lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, alleges that CNN took part in a “campaign of dissuasion in the form of libel and slander” that “escalated in recent months” because the network feared Trump would again run for president. The lawsuit took issue with CNN’s use of the words “racist” and “insurrectionist,” as well as associations made between the former president and Adolf Hitler.

Trump has a history of being highly litigious against critics in the media, though these legal challenges have had little success. In 2020, his campaign separately sued The Washington Post and the New York Times for libel over opinion pieces that linked the campaign to Russian electoral interference. (The suit against the Times was dismissed, while the legal challenge against The Post is still pending.) Trump’s campaign also filed a libel suit against CNN over an op-ed in 2020, which was later dismissed.

Jessica Levinson, a law professor at Loyola Marymount University, who reviewed the latest suit, said she sees “no legal path forward” for Trump.

“I see no false statements of fact that were made with actual malice,” she said, adding that an “enormous amount” of the CNN comments described as defamatory in the lawsuit appeared to be opinions.

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In the suit, Trump’s lawyers cite numerous clips and articles from CNN, including a 2019 interview with the singer Linda Ronstadt, who compared aspects of his presidency to Nazi rule in Germany. The attorneys argued that Ronstadt “is a singer, not a historian,” and called the interview a “pretext to repeat CNN’s message under the guise of real ‘reporting.’ ”

As a public figure, Trump needs to meet a higher standard to prove that CNN defamed him. His lawyers must show that CNN made false remarks about Trump that were presented as fact, and that the network had knowledge of the false remarks or a reckless disregard for the truth, a standard that historically has been very difficult to reach, Levinson said.

(Two Supreme Court justices, including Trump appointee Neil M. Gorsuch, have previously suggested that the standard needs review.)

Trump’s lawyers argue in the suit that CNN labeled Trump in ways that are “neither hyperbolic nor opinion,” and that the channel acted with “real animosity” to cause him “true harm.”

Lawyers representing the former president did not immediately return requests for comment Monday evening. A representative from CNN declined to comment on the suit.

Levinson said the most probable outcome of Trump’s legal challenge is that it would be thrown out once CNN filed a motion to dismiss the suit. If the case goes to trial, both sides would be able to request evidence from each other to discuss the degree of truth behind CNN’s statements. That ultimately could be disadvantageous for Trump, she said, particularly if the statements are found to be true.

“I think it’s really about trying to chill speech against the former president,” she said. “It’s a warning shot to media outlets that he intends to make good on threats of suing for defamation. And for some outlets, that could ultimately put them out of business.”