Donald Trump's campaign manager Corey Lewandowski tells New York magazine that he is mulling a lawsuit against BuzzFeed, which reported on Monday that the point man for the Republican presidential front-runner has made unwanted sexual advances toward female journalists.
"I'm not a public person," Lewandowski told the magazine. "I told [BuzzFeed reporter] McKay Coppins that his story was inaccurate. I told him not to publish. And he chose to run the story anyway."
Lewandowski's assertion that he is "not a public person" would actually be a critical point in a hypothetical libel case. The standard for proving libel is higher for public figures than it is for private citizens. Famous people must show that defamatory statements were made with "actual malice" — meaning that a news outlet knew it was publishing a false report or recklessly ignored reasons to doubt the veracity of its information. Regular Joes, by contrast, need only demonstrate negligence.
So would the guy running the campaign of the likely GOP nominee be able to convince a court that he is a private citizen? Probably not, said David Ardia, co-director of the Center for Media Law and Policy at the University of North Carolina.
"He is not someone who has shied away from interactions with the media," said Ardia, a former assistant counsel at The Washington Post. "He has voluntarily injected himself into the campaign."
That's a nice way of pointing out that Lewandowski made himself the subject of a big story this month when he allegedly grabbed and yanked the arm of a female reporter after a news conference, leaving bruises. In fact, that episode was the impetus for Monday's BuzzFeed report, which sought to establish a pattern of aggressive and inappropriate behavior. A court would consider this history, according to Ardia, and would likely consider Lewandowski to be what is known as a "limited-purpose" public figure — someone who assumes public status in the course of doing his job — as opposed to an "all-purpose" public figure, like his boss, whose every action seems newsworthy.
From there, Lewandowski would face a steep climb. Even if he could prove that BuzzFeed's report contained factual errors, that wouldn't be enough to win a case.
"If the overall thrust of the article comports with what is true, the plaintiff has a very difficult time," Ardia said. "The story must be substantially true; you can have small errors."
There's a big difference between getting a correction and getting a guilty verdict, in other words. If Lewandowski could show that specific incidents chronicled by BuzzFeed never happened — late-night calls to female reporters asking for sex, for example — the news site would probably still be in the clear, so long as Lewandowski failed to knock down the overarching narrative that he harasses women in the press corps.
And even if Lewandowski could effectively refute that big-picture storyline, he would have to demonstrate that BuzzFeed knew it was untrue, or had serious reasons to doubt, and decided to publish anyway.
Of course, this legal reasoning assumes that Trump doesn't fulfill his dream to "open up" the nation's libel laws. If Lewandowski's candidate succeeds, maybe he could win this case, after all.