Federal Judge Dismisses Stormy Daniels Defamation Suit Against Trump

A Federal Judge has dismissed a defamation lawsuit filed against the President

A Federal Judge in California has dismissed a lawsuit filed by Stephanie Clifford, who goes by the professional name Stormy Daniels, alleging that President Trump had defamed her in a series of tweets earlier this year:

A federal judge on Monday dismissed a lawsuit from adult-film actress Stormy Daniels that claimed President Trump defamed her when he suggested she had lied about being threatened to keep quiet about their alleged relationship.

U.S. District Judge S. James Otero in Los Angeles ruled that Trump’s speech was protected by the First Amendment as the kind of “rhetorical hyperbole” normally associated with politics and public discourse in the United States.” He ordered Daniels, whose given name is Stephanie Clifford, to pay Trump’s legal fees.

Trump attorney Charles Harder cheered Otero’s decision.

“No amount of spin or commentary by Stormy Daniels or her lawyer, Mr. Avenatti, can truthfully characterize today’s ruling in any way other than total victory for President Trump and total defeat for Stormy Daniels,” Harder said in an emailed statement.

The ruling is a blow for Daniels and her lawyer, Michael Avenatti, who has raised a national profile from his legal battles against the president and is contemplating a presidential bid in 2020.

Avenatti called the ruling “limited” on Twitter and said it did not affect Daniels’s primary case against Trump and his former attorney Michael Cohen, which seeks to invalidate her 2016 nondisclosure agreement.

(…)

Daniels filed the defamation claim in April after she released a sketch purporting to show the man she says threatened her in 2011 to keep quiet about the alleged affair.

Responding to the sketch on Twitter, Trump wrote that it depicted a “nonexistent man.”

“A total con job, playing the Fake News Media for Fools (but they know it)!” he wrote in the tweet, which became the basis of Daniels’s suit.

Otero, who was appointed to the court by President George W. Bush, had indicated during a late-September hearing that he was skeptical of Daniels’s claim on free-speech grounds. He said Monday that Daniels has presented herself as Trump’s “political adversary” in public and in court filings and that Trump has the right to respond to her claims.

“If this Court were to prevent Mr. Trump from engaging in this type of ‘rhetorical hyperbole’ against a political adversary, it would significantly hamper the office of the President,” Otero wrote.

“Any strongly-worded response by a president to another politician or public figure could constitute an action for defamation. This would deprive this country of the ‘discourse’ common to the political process,” he wrote.

Not surprisingly, President Trump, who seems to be spending an inordinate amount of his time today on Twitter, responded to the dismissal in typical fashion:

President Trump on Tuesday referred to the pornographic film actress Stephanie Clifford as “Horseface” in a Twitter post, as he gloated about a recent court ruling in his favor

In his tweet, Mr. Trump was referring to a federal judge’s decision to dismiss a defamation suit filed by Ms. Clifford, who is known professionally as Stormy Daniels. The judge also ordered Ms. Clifford to pay the president’s related legal fees.

The president’s use of the term “horseface” was jarring, even though he has previously used similar disparaging language to describe women who challenge him. But it could also prove problematic for Republicans facing female opponents in the upcoming midterm elections, now just weeks away.

Ms. Clifford’s attorney, Michael Avenatti, fired back on Twitter, calling the president a “disgusting misogynist and an embarrassment to the United States.”

Ms. Clifford had claimed that the president defamed her last spring and attacked her credibility.

Daniels had her own response to the President:

The roots of this lawsuit lie in a claim that Michael Avenatti, who is representing Daniels in connection with October 2016 agreement under which Daniels received $130,000 in exchange for her silence regarding her relationship with the President, that Daniels was threatened with physical harm to remain quiet about her relationship with Trump. Daniels provided some of the details surrounding that threat in her interview with Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes in late March and, earlier this month, made public a composite sketch of the man she asserts threatened her in a parking lot in Los Angeles some seven years ago. Trump responded to this shortly thereafter by essentially calling Daniels a liar in a Tweet:

In his ruling Judge Otero based his decision at least in part on California state laws aimed at protecting freedom of speech from being challenged by means of legal proceedings such as defamation lawsuits. Under these laws, which are generally known as anti-SLAPP, which stands for strategic lawsuits against public participation, defamation lawsuits can be dismissed if the fall within the confines of the law. While these laws vary from state-to-state they generally require the Defendant in such a lawsuit to show that they were speaking out against a public individual regarding an issue of concern to the public. If this can be established, then the burden shifts to the Plaintiff in the defamation lawsuit to show that they can make out a case of defamation based on the facts alleged.

In his ruling Judge Otero, who was appointed by George W. Bush, found that the tweet in question involved a public official and a matter of public concern. This is a somewhat questionable finding in that it is hard to determine from the opinion if the Judge is saying that the standard is met because the President is a public individual or that Clifford/Daniels is a public individual. It’s also unclear that the affair between Daniels and Trump, and the facts surrounding it are a matter of public concern. This could be an issue on appeal, an option which Michael Avenatti has already said his client will be pursuing.

In any event, having found for the Defendant on that part of the test, the question then shifted to whether or not Clifford had put forward a case of defamation based on the facts alleged. Once again, Otero found in favor of the President, finding that the statement Trump had made in his tweet was a matter of opinion rather than a statement of fact. As a general rule, of course, opinions cannot form the basis for a defamation lawsuit but it seems to me that one can at least make a credible case that what the President said in the underlying tweet was more than just an opinion, but rather an assertion of fact that Daniels was lying about having been threatened regarding her relationship with Trump. Judge Otero asserted in his opinion that Trump’s statement was a form of “rhetorical hyperbole,” noting that for several months prior to the Tweet Daniels and Avenatti had put Daniels forward as an adversary to the President. Otero noted, for example, that Daniels alleges in the lawsuit that “Mr. Trump sought to silence her as a strategy to win the Presidential election, a clear argument against the legitimacy of Mr. Trump’s Presidency. … Mr. Trump issued the tweet as a rejoinder against an individual challenging him in the public arena. This is the definition of protected rhetorical hyperbole.”

As I noted, Michael Avenatti has already indicated that his client intends to appeal this ruling to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, so this is not the end of this litigation. Additionally, it’s worth noting that this lawsuit is entirely unrelated to the litigation pending between Daniels and Trump concerning the underlying non-disclosure agreement under which Daniels was paid $130,000 to remain quiet about her relationship with the President. That litigation remains pending in New York City, although it is at least partly on hold due to the fact that the other Defendant in that case, former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, is currently the subject of ongoing criminal matters that resulted in his pleading guilty to a number of charges and agreeing to cooperate with Federal prosecutors. For both Daniels and Trump, that is the far more serious litigation than this defamation lawsuit.

No doubt, the ruling here is definitely a victory for the President and his lawyers. Notwithstanding that, though, the manner in which the President has decided to respond to that victory, by referred to Daniels as “horseface” is likely to be seen as far more notable than what is really a minor victory in minor lawsuit. Once again, the President has decided that the best way to respond to an adversary, and an adversary who happens to be a woman, is by referring to them in an insulting and dergatory manner. While his supporters are unlikely to care, this is just another example of the extent to which this President continues to act in a fundamentally un-Presidental manner. I’d say I’m surprised or shocked by his behavior, but with this President it’s just standard operating procedure.

Here’s the opinion:

Clifford v. Trump Opinion by on Scribd

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, First Amendment, Law and the Courts, Politicians, U.S. Constitution, US Politics, , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. CSK says:

    Oh, Stormy slapped back at Trump on Twitter, but good: “Game on, Tiny.”

    This was after she made a pointed reference to his “um…shortcomings.” And suggested that he might have “a penchant for bestiality.”

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  2. Gustopher says:

    Well, clearly, this means that Trump is vindicated in all things, and the greatest president ever.

    Make America Small And Mushroom Shaped Again!

    ReplyReply
  3. Kathy says:

    Calling someone a “third-rate lawyer,” is an opinion. Saying the sketch of an assailant is of a “non-existent man,” is a statement of fact; or in this case a lie without basis.

    ReplyReply
  4. CSK says:

    How that triple-chinned, tangerine-faced, pig-eyed lardass has the nerve to deprecate someone else’s looks escapes me.

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  5. Pylon says:

    “She knows nothing about me, a total con!”

    OK, this made me laugh.

    ReplyReply
  6. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    The day that we see a picture of Dennison’s penis gets closer all the time.

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  7. An Interested Party says:

    So this is where we are now…a president of the United States who refers to a woman as “Horseface”…his supporters must be so proud…

    ReplyReply
  8. Hal_10000 says:

    The ruling is not terribly surprising, although it is ironic that President “We Need to Redo the Libel Laws” was protected by the very anti-SLAPP provisions meant to stop people like him abusing the system. Not sure what the deal was, whether Avenatti is a garbage lawyer who put forward a dubious lawsuit in order to advance his political prospects or whether Daniels is a client who insisted on a dubious lawsuit. Either way, it doesn’t change that he’s a garbage person.

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  9. charon says:

    @An Interested Party:

    People who are ok with Brett Kavanaugh are not the type to have any problem with Horseface.

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  10. Liberal Capitalist says:

    @An Interested Party:

    So this is where we are now…a president of the United States who refers to a woman as “Horseface”…his supporters must be so proud…

    I think that he’s going for the women’s vote. I hear that women love it when men use derogatory and demeaning terms like that.

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  11. Sleeping Dog says:

    Going forward, all reference to Trump shall be identified as Tiny. LoL

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  12. Kathy says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    You don’t suppose it’s a as tiny as a Cheeto?

    ReplyReply
  13. Leonard says:

    @charon: Trump is an adulterer and a pig. Kavanaugh isn’t.

    ReplyReply
  14. One American says:

    All cool with calling a dignified Supreme Court nominee a gang rapist though. What a stupid week so far when a porn star and her ridiculous “lawyer” and a fake Indian wanna be Presidents are flapping in the wind 3 weeks before an election.

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  15. charon says:

    @Leonard:

    Kavanaugh isn’t.

    These opinions stated with the confidence one would expect from someone who knows the man well, a good friend perhaps?

    (Just ask Renate Schroeder who had something similar to say about him).

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  16. Tyrell says:

    How in the world can someone who is in adult films be defamed?
    This lawyer Avenetti’s act would fit in better on WWE.

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  17. charon says:

    @Tyrell:

    We can say with confidence Avenatti is a showboating narcissist who craves attention, also kind of unscrupulous judging by the piggybacking on Beto’s fundraising.

    How in the world can someone who is in adult films be defamed?

    Some might think that comment a tat misogynistic, also kind of an assertion of moral superiority.

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  18. KM says:

    @charon:
    It’s more then that – it’s the assumption that because you are “bad”, nothing bad can happen to you. It’s the same line of thinking that says sex workers can’t be raped or that a drug user deserves to OD and die on fentanyl-contaminated drugs. It assumes that the person doesn’t have the same rights and dignities as anyone else because of their choices and that an evil visited upon them *must* be related to those choices, even if it’s really not.

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  19. James Pearce says:

    So much for Plan A, huh?

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  20. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @Tyrell:

    How in the world can someone who is in adult films be defamed?

    Well now, aren’t you so morally superior?

    A couple facts:
    Porn videos make over $13B in profit annually. Hollywood, only 8.8 billion.
    The porn industry makes more money than the NFL, NBA, and MLB, combined.
    There are 30,000,000 people watching porn at any given time.
    The guy you voted for to be President fvcks porn stars, and then pays them hush money.

    Get off your high horse.

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  21. dmhlt says:

    @One American:
    “… a fake Indian wanna be Presidents [sic]’

    You should be interested in learning that Trump himself had genetic testing done and was found to share a measurable amount of DNA with toadstools.

    Granted, it was quite small – but not freakishly small.

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  22. becca says:

    Trump, Daniels, Avenatti, all cut from the same cheap and sleazy cloth.

    Make America Gross Again

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  23. Leonard says:

    @charon: “Misogynistic”? No men in adult films?

    ReplyReply
  24. wr says:

    @Donna Simmons: Hey, Mike — Still pretending to be a woman? The whole pretending to be a man thing not working out for you anymore?

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  25. Guarneri says:

    So I just read the post and comment thread.

    Someone said something about “insulting and derogatory?”

    ReplyReply
  26. Guarneri says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    And just think of the dollars you have to spend on paper towels……….

    ReplyReply
  27. charon says:

    @An Interested Party:

    So this is where we are now…a president of the United States who refers to a woman as “Horseface”…his supporters must be so proud…

    . headline from this linky …

    https://www.thedailybeast.com/trump-believed-his-stormy-daniels-horseface-tweet-was-politically-brilliant?ref=home ..

    Trump Believed His Stormy Daniels ‘Horseface’ Tweet Was Politically Brilliant

    excerpt:

    Well before Trump mocked Daniels’ physical appearance, he trial-ballooned the “horseface” dig privately—among White House aides, close friends, and acquaintances. One source close to Trump even recalled him saying in passing, “that fucking horseface.”

    ReplyReply

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