The Media Today

Trump is suing George Stephanopoulos. It’s all downhill from here.

March 22, 2024
Former President Donald Trump throws hats into the crowd prior to speaking at a rally, Saturday, Jan. 29, 2022, in Conroe, Texas. (Jason Fochtman/Houston Chronicle via AP)

Former president Donald Trump is suing George Stephanopoulos and ABC News for defamation—a sign that his long-proclaimed hostility to media may grow even more aggressive and toxic between now and the election.

Trump’s antagonism toward the media isn’t exactly new territory. He’s called the press “the enemy of the people” for years, famously mocked a reporter’s physical disability from the campaign stage in 2016, rants about the “fake news” and “dishonest press,” and has attacked reporters by name at rallies. His latest salvo is a sign that as the general election creeps closer, he’ll do everything he can to try to scare reporters into thinking twice about how they cover him. 

“It’s a bully tactic: ‘This is what will happen to you if you say something against me,’” Stephanie Grisham told me. “It says, ‘If I sued George Stephanopoulos, I’ll sue the little guy too.’”

Grisham would know: She was on Trump’s team from early in the 2016 campaign until the closing weeks of his time in office before turning against her former boss. She was there at his rallies as he forced reporters to stay in pens in the middle of the crowd for him to ritualistically shame them. She famously never held a press conference in the ten months she served as White House press secretary, and was there as Trump repeatedly threatened to push for changes to libel and slander laws to make it easier to sue the press.

“Suing for defamation is just one of his many fucked-up tools in his toolbox,” she said.

Trump’s lawsuit against Stephanopoulos, launched Monday, is more serious than his previous legal broadsides against the media, as the New Republic’s Matt Ford explains. Stephanopoulos said in a contentious interview with Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), a Trump surrogate and rape survivor, that Trump had twice been found “liable for rape by a jury.” That isn’t precisely accurate. In 2023, a jury found him liable for sexually abusing E. Jean Carroll and ordered him to pay her $5 million in damages, having determined that Trump defamed her, but did not find him liable for rape. (A jury awarded Carroll $83 million more in damages in a follow-up trial this January after finding he had defamed her again.)

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But the judge in that case, Lewis Kaplan, later issued a ruling that further muddied the waters. “The finding that Ms. Carroll failed to prove that she was ‘raped’ within the meaning of the New York Penal Law does not mean that she failed to prove that Mr. Trump ‘raped’ her as many people commonly understand the word ‘rape,’” Kaplan wrote in the ruling. “Indeed, as the evidence at trial recounted below makes clear, the jury found that Mr. Trump in fact did exactly that.”

Current libel law’s standard of proving that someone acted with “actual malice” when speaking about a public figure—that is, with a reckless disregard for the truth, or knowing full well that the statement was a lie—makes it harder for people like Trump to win defamation cases. (Trump’s campaign didn’t respond to multiple interview requests for this story, and an ABC News spokesperson declined to comment.)

But as Rolling Stone reports, according to some close to him, Trump’s latest lawsuit isn’t really about winning. He is furious, and he wants to make an example out of the ABC host. “This is about not fucking around with Donald Trump,” one source in Trump’s orbit told the magazine.

It’s a strategy Trump has long favored. He has filed a bevy of lawsuits against reporters and news organizations over the years. Most have been dismissed, including a $475 million defamation suit against CNN that a Trump-appointed judge tossed out in July. Some have cost Trump large sums

This iteration of the Trump campaign has so far been far more professionalized—and professional—in its approach to the media than in 2020, and especially compared with 2016. It has been more accessible and less reflexively aggressive toward reporters behind the scenes.

The campaign isn’t boasting about blocking outlets it doesn’t like, as it did in 2016, but it seems as though that option is still on the table. Reporters from outlets not known for being friendly to Trump have told me they’ve been denied credentials to some of his rallies this campaign. 

In January, the Trump campaign barred NBC News reporter Vaughn Hillyard from traveling with it as the day’s designated pool reporter after he pressed Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), a Trump surrogate, about whether she believed Carroll. That left the TV networks without a pool reporter for the day.

Meanwhile, it appears that some of the Trump figures who have the testiest relationships with reporters may be coming back into his orbit. Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that Paul Manafort and Corey Lewandowski, two of Trump’s 2016 managers, were in talks to return to the fold, with roles with the Republican National Convention. Lewandowski had an especially hostile relationship with many in the press during that campaign. A Breitbart reporter, Michelle Fields, alleged that at one campaign stop, he had grabbed her by the arm hard enough to leave bruises. He denied having done so, until video of the incident emerged.

Earlier this week, Lewandowski went on Newsmax and flayed the press.

“The mainstream media will stop at nothing to destroy the lives of conservatives,” he said, after praising Trump for his aggressive approach to reporters.

“They are scared to death. Because what we saw during the Trump administration was an administration that was pushing back against the false narrative that they perpetuated for four years. And Donald Trump called these liars out for who they are. He asked them right from the podium, ‘Why don’t you tell the truth?’ He made, actually, a number of these people famous for their lies,” Lewandowski said.

Grisham recalled feeling “not safe” at times when she was in the press pen during Trump’s rallies. She stuck by Trump’s side for most of his time in office. But she resigned in protest on the evening of January 6, after pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol.

And she warned that the nearer the election gets, and the realer a second Trump term seems, the harder it will be for her—and everyone else—to criticize Trump.

“Right now I speak out all the time. And as we get closer, does it scare me more, do I stop and think more? I absolutely do. Because I’m like, ‘What is about to happen if he wins?’ And if he does win, will that make me really think about changing the way I do things? Yeah.” 

Other notable stories:

  • Reddit had an impressive debut on the New York Stock Exchange yesterday—a fact that, among other things, was good news for Advance Publications, a major Reddit shareholder. This success, however, could present what CNN’s Oliver Darcy describes as an “optics problem” for the magazine company Condé Nast, which Advance owns, and which has laid off staffers in recent months amid an increasingly contentious relationship with its union. “The fact that billions of dollars in wealth poured into Advance as we continue to fight for jobs illustrates where Condé Nast’s priorities are,” Susan DeCarava, the president of the NewsGuild of New York, told Darcy. (Advance, it should be noted, will not be able to sell its shares in Reddit for six months.)
  • This week, lawyers for Prince Harry and other high-profile plaintiffs in a case alleging unlawful reporting practices, including phone-hacking, at Rupert Murdoch’s UK tabloids alleged for the first time in court that Murdoch knew about these practices far earlier than he has admitted, and that he approved of executives’ efforts to cover up evidence related to them. Among the executives implicated in the allegations is Will Lewis, who worked for Murdoch’s UK business and is, as of this year, the publisher of the Washington Post. A defense lawyer in the case suggested that the new allegations are legally meritless and “designed to grab headlines.” NPR’s David Folkenflik has more.
  • As Evan Gershkovich, a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, closes in on a year in prison in Russia, an executive for Dow Jones, the Journal’s publisher, called on the US and other countries to impose immediate sanctions on countries that wrongfully detain journalists in the future. In other press-freedom news, Russia expelled Xavier Colas, a journalist for the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, after refusing to renew his visa. And the Committee to Protect Journalists called out a regional official in Spain for threatening and doxxing journalists who covered corruption allegations against his boss’s partner.
  • CPJ also has an update on Lucien Jura, a commentator and former presidential spokesperson in Haiti, who was kidnapped this week amid a rapidly deteriorating political and security situation in the country. CPJ has not established whether the incident is related to Jura’s work, but noted that the crisis in Haiti has had an impact on “the journalists trying to keep the public informed,” adding that those holding Jura should release him immediately since journalists “should not be used as pawns.”
  • And, after G/O Media announced last week that it was selling Deadspin and laying off the entire staff in the process, reporters began digging into Lineup Publishing, the mysterious new European company that is buying the sports site. 404 Media’s Jason Koebler now reports that the owner of the new company has ties to the sports-betting industry, and that Deadspin is set to become a “gambling referral site.”

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Cameron Joseph is a freelance political reporter with recent work in The Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, and Politico Magazine. A recipient of the 2023 National Press Foundation Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress and the 2020 National Press Club award for excellence in political journalism, he previously worked for VICE News, Talking Points Memo, the New York Daily News, The Hill and National Journal.