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Trump’s ‘Lunatic’ ABC Lawsuit Is About Bullying the Media, Not Winning

According to those who’ve spoken to him lately, former President Donald Trump doesn’t seem to think he’s actually going to win his defamation lawsuit against ABC News and its star host George Stephanopoulos — but that’s not the point.

Over the weekend, Stephanopoulos asserted that Trump had been “found liable for rape and defaming” the victim, writer E. Jean Carroll, by judges and two juries. As a factual matter, a jury found Trump defamed and sexually abused Carroll — and he was ordered to pay $83 million for defaming her again. Trump’s lawsuit claims Stephanopoulos’ comments were “false, intentional, malicious and designed to cause harm.”

Behind closed doors, the presumptive 2024 Republican presidential nominee has told confidants and lawyers that a primary purpose of the suit is to make an example of Stephanopoulos, two people with direct knowledge of the matter tell Rolling Stone. In recent days, Trump has privately said that “everyone” in the media should think twice about calling him a “rapist” on TV and in print, and that “tak[ing] them to court” — win or lose — is a good way to remind them of that, one of the people says.

“‘It’s not about the money,’ was the impression that I got,” says the other source, who discussed the situation with the ex-president. “This is about not fucking around with Donald Trump.”

During a combative interview with Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) on Sunday, Stephanopoulos pressed Mace to answer how she could support a candidate who the ABC News host claimed had been “found liable for rape,” in a reference to the Carroll lawsuit. In May 2023, a federal jury found Trump liable for defamation and sexual abuse, but not rape, for assaulting Carroll in 1996 in a Bergdorff Goodman dressing room. (Trump has denied the accusations, and did so again earlier this month.)

Trump, the sources recount, grew absolutely livid when he saw the Stephanopoulos interview, and began calling up advisers and demanding a suit from his vast gallery of personal attorneys.

Some had advised the ex-president that a lawsuit could risk drawing more attention — including from voters in a crucial election year — to Carroll’s sexual-assault allegations, or possibly invite expensive sanctions from a court, the sources add. Trump, in conversations with close associates and MAGA-aligned lawyers, emphatically did not seem to care.

Stephanopoulos has been under Trump’s skin lately, even before the interview this weekend. Earlier this month, the former president attacked Stephanopoulos during the Oscars, as part of a screed against the award show’s host, Jimmy Kimmel. “Get rid of Kimmel and perhaps replace him with another washed up, but cheap, ABC ‘talent,’ George Slopanopoulos,” Trump posted on Truth Social. “He would make everybody on stage look bigger, stronger, and more glamorous.”

Trump has a lengthy track record of lodging frivolous, intentionally vengeful lawsuits against his political and personal enemies. This one may be a longshot, too, though some legal observers are taking this suit more seriously than Trump’s past lawsuit threats and filings. For instance, Matt Ford at The New Republic argues that “the former president has a long losing streak against the media, but George Stephanopoulos’s rape commentary may have opened the door to his first big victory.”

As Ford notes, in Trump’s complaint, his lawyer points out that when Stephanopoulos interviewed Carroll last year, he specifically asked her what she was thinking when it was announced in the courtroom that Trump “was not found liable for rape.”

Other legal experts and longtime attorneys aren’t quite as convinced.

“This lunatic Trump suit is purely performative and substantially less meritorious than even his typical performative lawsuits,” says Ken White, a First Amendment litigator and former federal prosecutor, describing the lawsuit as “complete bullshit.” The attorney adds, “it’s more attention-grabbing, more swinging fists at the media, another opportunity to get more political donations.”

After a federal jury found him liable for sexual abuse and defamation against Carroll, Trump’s attorneys sought a new trial on damages in the case because, they argued, the sexual abuse for which the jury found him liable “could have included groping of [Carroll’s] breasts through clothing or similar conduct, which is a far cry from rape.”

Judge Lewis Kaplan, who presided over the trial, found the argument “entirely unpersuasive.”

“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, denying the motion for a new trial. “Indeed, as the evidence at trial recounted below makes clear, the jury found that Mr. Trump in fact did exactly that.”

White argues the Trump defamation lawsuit is “very obviously wrong on its face, if you know anything about the cases.” He says, “Judge Kaplan in the E. Jean Carroll cases already rejected this same claim by Trump, who tried to bring a counter-claim against Carroll, claiming that she defamed him by saying the jury found that he was liable for ‘rape’ … Trump has had a run of really bad lawsuits. This one is unusually, vulgarly, obviously bad. This one doesn’t even pass the plausible claim test.”

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