Donald Trump

Trump Files Defamation Lawsuit Against ABC for Saying He Was Found Liable for Rape Instead of Sexual Assault

The defamation lawsuit is the latest in Trump's campaign of lawfare against media outlets, but all of those suits have failed so far.


Former president Donald Trump filed a defamation lawsuit yesterday against ABC News and TV host George Stephanopoulos for claiming that a New York jury found him liable for rape, when in fact the jury had found him liable for sexual assault.

In a complaint filed yesterday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, Trump alleges that Stephanopoulos defamed him during a March 10 interview with Rep. Nancy Mace (R–S.C.) in which the host repeatedly said that a jury found Trump liable for rape in the lawsuits brought against him by E. Jean Carroll.

"You've endorsed Donald Trump for president," Stephanopoulos said to Mace. "Judges and two separate juries have found him liable for rape and for defaming the victim of that rape. How do you square your endorsement of Donald Trump with the testimony that we just saw?"

In 2019, Carroll claimed that Trump raped her in a department store dressing room in the '90s. Trump denied the allegation, saying Carroll wasn't his type and that she made up the story to sell copies of her book. Last year, a jury awarded her $5 million after finding Trump liable for sexual abuse and defamation, and earlier this year a judge affirmed an $83 million judgment against Trump for defaming Carroll again.

Trump's complaint is correct that, as a technical matter, he was found civilly liable for sexual assault under New York state law, not rape, because the jury did not find that he penetrated Carrol with his penis.

However, U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan, who presided over one of Carroll's lawsuits, directly addressed the semantics of the jury's findings in an order last year, noting that the New York penal code's definition was far narrower than how the word is used in the common parlance or even other comparable state and federal criminal statutes.

"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. "Indeed, as the evidence at trial recounted below makes clear, the jury found that Mr. Trump in fact did exactly that."

The jury's finding "necessarily implies that it found that Mr. Trump forcibly penetrated her vagina," Kaplan continued later in the order. "And since the jury's answer to Question 1 demonstrates that it was unconvinced that there was penile penetration, the only remaining conclusion is that it found that Mr. Trump forcibly penetrated her vagina with his fingers—in other words, that he 'raped' her in the sense of that term broader than the New York Penal Law definition."

Kaplan's order was in response to a motion from Trump's lawyers appealing the jury award on the grounds that it was excessive because Trump had not technically "raped" Carroll under the statutory definition. Kaplan wrote that the argument was "entirely unpersuasive."

Trump is not interested in litigating the truth so much as attempting to punish media outlets and chill criticism through expensive lawsuits. Trump and his 2020 reelection campaign filed numerous defamation suits against media outlets over comments regarding the former president's alleged collusion with Russia and his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But as Reason reported last year, those lawsuits have all been failures. In every case, Trump's lawyers failed to meet the high bar established in the landmark 1964 Supreme Court case New York Times v. Sullivan. Sullivan established that, to prevail on a defamation claim, public figures must show that the publishers knew the statements were false or acted with reckless disregard for the truth.

In every case, federal judges found that Trump's sweeping allegations of political bias failed to meet the constitutional standard for showing actual malice. He was also recently forced to pay $392,000 in legal fees to The New York Times in another failed lawsuit over the leak of his tax files.

Unsurprisingly, Trump has also repeatedly complained over the years that libel laws need to be "opened up" to remove the strong protections that news outlets have enjoyed from defamation lawsuits since Sullivan.