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March 26, 2024

In Brief: Stephanopoulos Didn’t Defame Trump

Inaccurate is not the same as false with regard to the commentator’s statement that Trump was found “liable for rape.”

Donald Trump lost a sexual battery and defamation case last year. Then he defamed his alleged victim, E. Jean Carroll, again, and he lost again. It’s certainly part of the lawfare being waged against the former president, but he isn’t helping himself. Former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy weighs in on the latest on Trump’s lawsuit against one of ABC’s Democrat operatives.

George Stephanopoulos was a key player in the Clintons’ character-destruction project against women who claimed that Bill Clinton had been sexually aggressive toward them. Admittedly, then, I would shed no tears if he got some comeuppance after expressing his sudden, precious concerns about women who claim to have been sexually abused — by Donald Trump, of course, not by Clinton.

As a matter of law, though, Trump’s defamation lawsuit against Stephanopoulos is a dud. Given the cash crunch the former president is in, I hope he didn’t pay his lawyers too much to file it.

As ever, Stephanopoulos is a Democratic operative. I don’t have much sympathy for such loose cannons as Congresswoman Nancy Mace (R., S.C.), another in the long line of Republicans who enthusiastically accept invitations to appear on television with Stephanopoulos — thus contributing to the charade that he is an objective journalist — only to find themselves burned when he inevitably goes partisan on them. Yet Mace, a Trump supporter, has reported being a rape victim. Hence, it was not just wrong but appalling for Stephanopoulos, of all people, to use that against her just to make a cheap partisan point against Trump — to wit, how could Mace, of all people, support Trump when “judges and two separate juries have found him liable for rape?”

This is the assertion that Trump alleges is defamatory — further noting that Stephanopoulos repeated the “liable for rape” description a number of times. There is nothing stupid about Stephanopoulos, so I’m sure he knew what he was saying was inaccurate. Nevertheless, inaccurate is not the same as false, which I don’t believe the partisan commentator’s statement was. Trump, moreover, did not suffer any material harm. On these facts, I don’t believe there would be a viable defamation case against Stephanopoulos even if Trump weren’t a public figure — i.e., a prominent person for whom our law makes it very difficult to prove defamation. In that context, an allegedly defamatory statement is not actionable unless it is not merely false but made with actual malice or reckless disregard for the truth.

McCarthy then discusses at length some of the finer points and legal considerations, as well as some rather blunt discussion of the allegations involved in the Carrol vs. Trump case, which was a civil case, not a criminal one. To sum up his assessment, Carroll fell woefully short of proving much of anything, though she did persuade the jury to sympathize with her. Trump did himself no favors by refusing to even show up in court to attest to his innocence. The same could be said for suing Stephanopolous.

Trump’s lawsuit is foolish — not only because it’s going to cost him more in legal fees and expenses at a time when he can ill afford it, but because it will invite more attention to what the juries, especially the first one, actually found. Contrary to Trump’s revisionism, those findings are condemnatory, not exculpatory.

Of course, Stephanopoulos should apologize. If he were a straight journalist rather than a partisan hack, he would. No, technically, he didn’t defame Trump; but he knows that what he said was a stretch, and he did it repeatedly because he is trying to brand his party’s nemesis with the word “rape.”

As for Trump, he should stop talking about Carroll, which has proved an expensive proposition for him, and stop calling attention to the Carroll trials because a faithful recounting of them does not flatter him, to put it mildly. …

To be clear, I am not saying that I think Carroll is lying. I have no idea who is lying: I’m troubled by aspects of Carroll’s story and her flippant manner of discussing it in media appearances; but then again, if I were Trump and I’d been falsely accused of rape, nothing could have prevented me from attending every moment of the trial and denying the allegation as forcefully as I could.

He concludes:

Stephanopoulos knows better than to say what he said. Still, if lots of people believe that Trump was found liable for rape, it’s not because of Stephanopoulos. It’s because Trump didn’t show up to contest that allegation when it counted.

National Review subscribers can read the whole thing here.

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