The adult-film actress Stormy Daniels’ libel suit against President Donald Trump was thrown out Monday by a federal judge, who also ordered Daniels to pay Trump’s legal fees in the case.
U.S. District Court Judge S. James Otero in Los Angeles said Trump was engaged in “rhetorical hyperbole” in April when he sent a tweet casting doubt on threats that Daniels claimed to have received in 2011 as she debated whether to go public with her claim of a sexual encounter with Trump.
“A sketch years later about a nonexistent man. A total con job, playing the fake news media for fools (but they know it),” Trump wrote on Twitter.
In a 14-page order, Otero noted that the tweet was a one-time statement by Trump and said it failed to meet the standard of a clear factual claim that Daniels had lied.
“Mr. Trump’s tweet constitutes ‘rhetorical hyperbole,’ which is ‘extravagant exaggeration [that is] employed for rhetorical effect,’” the judge wrote.
“Specifically, Mr. Trump’s tweet displays an incredulous tone, suggesting that the content of his tweet was not meant to be understood as a literal statement about Plaintiff. Instead, Mr. Trump sought to use language to challenge Plaintiff’s account of her affair and the threat that she purportedly received. … As the United States Supreme Court has held, a published statement that is ‘pointed, exaggerated, and heavily laden with emotional rhetoric and moral outrage’ cannot constitute a defamatory statement.”
Otero, an appointee of President George W. Bush, said that allowing the suit to go forward would create an imbalance in public discourse on a matter of significant public interest.
“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,” the judge 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.”
“In short, should Plaintiff publicly voice her opinions about Mr. Trump, Mr. Trump is entitled to publicly voice non-actionable opinions about Plaintiff,” Otero added. “To allow Plaintiff to proceed with her defamation action would, in effect, permit Plaintiff to make public allegations against the President without giving him the opportunity to respond. Such a holding would violate the First Amendment.”
Daniels’ attorney, Michael Avenatti, immediately appealed the ruling to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. On Twitter, Avenatti called the ruling “limited” and noted that a suit that Daniels filed against Trump and his former personal attorney Michael Cohen relating to an alleged $130,000 hush-money deal remains on the books.
“Daniels’ other claims against Trump and Cohen proceed unaffected,” Avenatti said. “Trump’s contrary claims are as deceptive as his claims about the inauguration attendance. We will appeal the dismissal of the defamation cause of action and are confident in a reversal.”
Charles Harder, a Trump lawyer, hailed the ruling, highlighting the requirement that Daniels pay Trump’s legal fees.
“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 a statement “The amount of the award for President Trump’s attorneys’ fees will be determined at a later date.”
Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, filed the defamation suit in New York last April. She later agreed to a request by Trump’s lawyers to transfer the case to Los Angeles, where Otero sits and has been handling the litigation over the alleged hush money deal.
Since Daniels is a Texas resident, Otero held that Texas law applies to the libel case. Like many states, Texas has a so-called anti-SLAPP law, allowing for early dismissal of lawsuits based on statements on controversial public issues. Most such laws have a provision requiring the losing party to pay the other side’s legal fees if a case is ordered dismissed.