Trump Has ‘Almost No Chance’ in Defamation Case Against CNN, Legal Experts Say

“He’s filing it because it helps perpetuate his narrative that he’s a victim of the system,” one attorney tells TheWrap

Donald Trump
Donald Trump sued CNN for defamation, seeking $475 million in damages (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Donald Trump has “almost no chance” in the defamation case he filed Monday against CNN, legal experts say of the former president’s latest attempt to sue a news organization over negative coverage — his fourth since 2020, when he filed an earlier suit against CNN as well as The New York Times and The Washington Post.

“This new suit seems to have even less of a chance than the previous ones,” said Fred Schauer, a law professor at the University of Virginia, who added that the strong opinions and interpretations targeted in the suit cannot be the basis for a defamation action by a public official or candidate for public office following the landmark 1964 Supreme Court decision in New York Times v. Sullivan.

Trump’s suit seeks $475 million in damages for what the former president calls a “campaign of libel and slander” that included “defamatory labels of ‘racist,’ ‘Russian lackey,’ ‘insurrectionist,’ and ultimately ‘Hitler.’” While the suit asserts the comparisons to Hitler demonstrate “actual malice,” a key component of any defamation action, experts say it will likely struggle to get off the ground.

“Defamation law is designed to allow people to sue for false statements of fact, but to preserve the ability to make statements of opinion,” according to RonNell Andersen Jones, a First Amendment scholar and law professor at the University of Utah.

Schauer concurred: “Since the basis for Trump’s suit is not the publication of a fact, let alone a knowingly false one, there is essentially no chance he will win, and almost no chance that he will even survive a motion to dismiss at an early stage,” he told TheWrap, noting that Trump would have to prove that the statements were “in the realm of hard fact, that the claimed hard fact was false and that CNN knew it was false — or suspected it was false — at the time of publication.”

David Sloss, a professor Santa Clara University School of Law, believes the former president said that the suit — which has “zero chance of winning that claim” — is less about a victory in a courthouse than in the court of public opinion. “I don’t think he’s really filing it because he thinks he can win; I think he’s filing it because it helps perpetuate his narrative that he’s a victim of the system,” Sloss told TheWrap. “It’s mostly about publicity and public relations and not about not really about trying to present a viable legal claim.”

Jones agreed. “The real focus of these sorts of lawsuits tends to be the [former] President’s political base, who will hear the threat of a lawsuit and clock only that this news organization has so crossed the line that the President is doing it,” he said, underscoring that this move delegitimizes the press and positions the media as an enemy.

“It casts Trump as a source of truth, and the news organization as sources of falsehoods,” Jones said. “The wider goal may just be messaging that there was a lie, rather than ultimately getting to court and proving that there is actionable defamation.” Jones also notes that suing a news organization for calling you racist is particularly challenging, since “the courts have often considered accusing someone of racism to be opinion and not factual assertion.”

Since the three other similar cases were filed 2020, two Supreme Court Justices — Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, who was appointed by Trump — have expressed an interest in revisiting libel law precedents like Times v. Sullivan. However, no shift in libel doctrine has occurred. The courts that this case will go before will adhere to the same governing standards as in those other previous cases.

“Some justices would like to make a change, but that change hasn’t happened,” Jones said. “The First Amendment’s standard as of today remains strongly protective news organizations like CNN in these kinds of cases, and remains a very tough standard for public figures and public officials like Donald Trump.”

Sloss added: “It’s very unlikely that this will get to the Supreme Court and I don’t think there’s going to be any changes in the relevant First Amendment doctrine soon enough to help Donald Trump in this lawsuit.”

You are reading a WrapPRO exclusive article that has been made available (for free) today. If you would like to have access to all of our member-only stories and virtual events, please CLICK HERE to receive 7 free days of WrapPRO –> The Essential Source for Entertainment Insiders.