Another day, another stupid lawsuit/legal threat emanating from the Trump offices. Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, has decided to rub up against the libel laws Trump so badly wants to "open up" by filing a ridiculous defamation lawsuit against Buzzfeed for publishing the Christopher Steele dossier compiled by Fusion GPS. Fusion is also being sued, but the addition of Buzzfeed strips the lawsuit of much of its credibility.
Cohen has every reason to dislike what was said about him in the dossier. According to the Fusion GPS opposition report, Cohen was supposedly instrumental in hooking the president's people up with high-ranking Russian officials during the presidential campaign. Cohen maintains all of these allegations are false. From the lawsuit [PDF]:
Under this report, Plaintiff is alleged to have an inappropriate and possibly criminal relationship with the Russian government stemming from his wife's familial relations with a Russian property developer. None of these allegations are true. Plaintiff does not have any relationship with Russian officials and his father-in-law is not a leading property developer in Moscow; he has only been to Russia once. In fact, Plaintiff's father-in-law does not even own a vacation home in Sochi, nor has he ever been there. Additionally, Plaintiff's wife was born in the Ukraine region and immigrated to the United States over forty (40) years ago; she has never been to Russia.
The dossier was published in full last January. In March, Cohen provided Buzzfeed with his passport, showing he had never traveled to the areas the report said he had. That should have been enough for Cohen, but he's decided to, at the very minimum, force Buzzfeed to defend itself against defamation claims up to a motion to dismiss.
The lawsuit goes on and on about allegations made in the report, each one supposedly provably false. Several paragraphs are devoted to quoting parts of the report, followed by Cohen's rebuttal of the report. Even a casual observer of defamation suits should be able to see the problem. The entity Cohen should be suing is Fusion GPS, and Fusion GPS only.
Cohen's lawsuit is largely made up of counterspeech. The best weapon against speech you don't agree with is more speech, delivered from your side. But using a federal lawsuit to engage in counterspeech doesn't do anything positive for the First Amendment. If Cohen wanted to rebut these allegations publicly, I'm sure there's no shortage of press outlets willing to make space for an op-ed piece by the president's personal lawyer. Cohen has instead decided to use the government to grant credence to his side of the story and is hoping to take home $100 million on top of whatever collateral damage he does to the First Amendment.
Cohen has to stretch to make Buzzfeed the target of a lawsuit complaining about things that weren't said by anyone at Buzzfeed.
Defendants knew that the Dossier reports were false and/or acted with reckless disregard in determining whether the reports were true or false.
While it's true Buzzfeed thought the document might be sketchy, it did warn readers the dossier had not been verified and included errors. This is hardly "reckless" behavior. The dossier was definitely newsworthy. On top of that, government officials had already acted on information contained in the document, lending it further credence and adding to its public interest value. Buzzfeed's Ben Smith offered his defense of the document's public value (and implicit pedigree) at the New York Times. His statement goes right to the heart of Cohen's "reckless disregard" allegations:
When we published the dossier, we knew a lot: We knew that it had been written by the former head of the Russia desk at Britain’s main foreign intelligence agency, a man whose job had made him a leading source on Russian espionage. We knew that key members of the Senate — Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat, and John McCain, the Arizona Republican — had acted on its contents. We had also learned that intelligence officials had briefed President Barack Obama and President-elect Trump on the dossier, and that the F.B.I. was already looking into it.
So, it's not as though some internet rando jammed a bunch of virtual papers through Buzzfeed's SecureDrop mail slot. This document had received vetting from government officials, many of which saw enough in it to move forward with investigations and Congressional hearings.
To be fair, Cohen is also suing Fusion GPS. But adding Buzzfeed to the lawsuit serves zero purpose other than to hassle it for ensuring the document ended up in the public's hands. This rolls back a lot of the fairness I so recently extended Cohen. New York has a severely-restricted (and mostly useless) anti-SLAPP law so Buzzfeed won't be able to turn around and demand a refund from Cohen for wasting its time.
Cohen clearly doesn't like what was said about him in the Fusion report. Great, sue Fusion. Sue Christopher Steele. But don't make this about a third party that did nothing more than publish a document of public interest with fair warning to readers about the dubious veracity of the contents.