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Stormy Daniels suing Trump for defamation

Stormy Daniels' attorney, Michael Avenatti, has filed a new lawsuit on Daniels' behalf accusing President Donald Trump of attempting to tarnish her reputation and credibility by dismissing her account of a man who threatened her in 2011.

Posted: May 1, 2018 2:46 PM
Updated: May 1, 2018 2:57 PM

President Donald Trump's chief provocateur has struck again -- this time with a lawsuit alleging defamation of adult film star Stormy Daniels.

In what appeared to be an effort to keep her case at the center of the news after a delay in a related case in California, Daniels' lawyer, Michael Avenatti, filed a new lawsuit on Daniels' behalf on Monday. The suit alleges that Trump attempted to tarnish her reputation and credibility by dismissing her account -- and subsequent description -- of a man who threatened her in 2011, at a time when she was ready to go public about her alleged affair with Trump.

The lawsuit filed Monday by Daniels, whose legal name is Stephanie Clifford, in federal court in New York targets Trump's tweet on April 18 dismissing a composite sketch of a man who the adult film star says threatened her over her alleged affair with Trump more than a decade ago.

In that tweet, Trump called the composite sketch "a total con job." The lawsuit says Daniels suffered damages in excess of $75,000.

"By calling the incident a 'con job,' Mr. Trump's statement would be understood to state that Ms. Clifford was fabricating the crime and the existence of the assailant, both of which are prohibited under New York law, as well as the law of numerous other states," Avenatti wrote in the lawsuit.

"It was apparent that Mr. Trump meant to convey that Ms. Clifford is a liar, someone who should not be trusted, that her claims about the threatening encounter are false, and that she was falsely accusing the individual depicted in the sketch of committing a crime, where no crime had been committed. ... Mr. Trump made his statement either knowing it was false, had serious doubts about the truth of his statement, or made the statement with reckless disregard for its truth or falsity."

The suit is separate from another lawsuit in which Daniels is suing Trump's personal attorney, Michael Cohen, over the legality of a 2016 hush agreement in which she was paid $130,000 to keep quiet about the alleged affair with Trump.

The President, who is also a defendant in that lawsuit, has denied any sexual encounter between the two. Daniels also has sued Cohen for defamation.

The language in Monday's lawsuit about how Daniels' alleged affair with Trump came to the attention of InTouch magazine conflicts with CNN's reporting on the matter.

In the lawsuit, Avenatti claims that Daniels agreed to cooperate with InTouch in May 2011 on an article about the alleged affair that was being pushed to the magazine by Daniels' ex-husband.

The lawsuit contends that Daniels' ex-husband approached the magazine without approval from Daniels, adding that "she did so only after being told that the magazine was going to be running the story with or without her cooperation."

But two sources with knowledge of the arrangement told CNN that it was Daniels' manager, Gina Rodriguez, who was peddling the story on behalf of Daniels. The adult film star, the sources said, did the interview willingly and went so far as to sit for a lie detector test.

When asked about the conflicting account of how Daniels connected with InTouch, Avenatti told CNN it was "complete and utter nonsense. An absolute fabrication. And in any event, irrelevant."

Daniels contends that she was threatened in Las Vegas a few weeks after sharing her story with InTouch. She has said that a man -- who became the subject of the composite sketch referenced by Trump earlier this month -- approached her in a parking lot and said, "Leave Trump alone. Forget the story."

According to her account, the man then leaned in, looked at Daniels' infant daughter and said: "That's a beautiful little girl. It'd be a shame if something happened to her mom." (InTouch never published the story.)

After the composite sketch of the man was released publicly on April 17 at Daniels' behest, the President referenced her account in a tweet.

"A sketch years later about a nonexistent man," Trump tweeted on April 18. "A total con job, playing the Fake News Media for Fools (but they know it)!"

Avenatti's move Monday seemed designed to draw fresh attention to Daniels' claims after a California judge halted her lawsuit against Cohen for 90 days while a criminal investigation of him moves forward in New York.

But some legal analysts have interpreted Avenatti's moves against Cohen, and now the President, as an effort to compel Trump and his lawyer to give a deposition under oath, as investigators probe the circumstances around Cohen's $130,000 payment to Daniels before the 2016 presidential election.

In mid-April, the FBI raided Cohen's office, home and a hotel room that he was using. They seized recordings he had made of his conversations with Daniels' former lawyer, Keith Davidson.

When asked Monday why it was necessary to file the lawsuits in two different legal jurisdictions, Avenatti told CNN that "it wasn't by accident" that they decided to file a separate defamation suit against Trump on Monday in New York. He declined, however, to explain the thinking behind his strategy.

"I'm not at liberty to get into that. But it wasn't by accident," he said in a telephone interview Monday afternoon.

Avenatti said the suggestion that Daniels' latest case is a media ploy is "absolutely baseless, absurd, moronic and ridiculous."

"We did not force the President to issue this defamatory tweet," Avenatti said, referring to Trump's tweet on April 18.

"We stated immediately after it was issued that we were going to be bringing this claim either in the LA case or in a separate matter. And that's exactly what we've done."

Avenatti has said Daniels plans to file an appeal challenging the move by the California judge to issue a 90-day stay.

Avenatti and his legal team face significant hurdles in bringing the defamation case against Trump, not only because it involves a public figure, but also because the President has wide latitude to express his opinions.

In an interview Monday night with CNN's Erin Burnett on "Erin Burnett OutFront," Harry Sandick, a former assistant US attorney for the Southern District of New York, said the defamation case had little chance of surviving: "I think we're going to see a motion to dismiss in this case -- that would be my prediction."

"You're allowed to express opinions without running afoul of defamation law, even as a president," Sandick said. "And, in fact, there's a question about whether -- because he's doing this as President -- if this is somehow within the scope of his role as President. There's an absolute immunity from a Supreme Court case in 1982 when the president acts as president. It's not clear here whether he's acting within the perimeter of his role as President. But if he is, that would be another immunity."

CNN legal analyst Paul Callan, a former New York homicide prosecutor and media law professor, called the case "a publicity stunt" and engaged Avenatti in a spirited debate about the case Monday night during an appearance on "Anderson Cooper 360."

"Even good defamation cases are hard to win in court, because of the discovery involved and proving actual damages. But this case, I think, is going to be extraordinarily difficult," Callan said. "The defense will be that this is simply an expression of opinion by the President, which he's allowed to express, and that is considered non-defamatory under defamation law."

Not only is there a higher bar for defamation cases involving public figures, but Callan added that Avenatti and his legal team will have to prove that the President acted with malice in making the statements about Daniels' account. "There's a very, very strong argument to make that this case will get tossed by a judge at an early stage," Callan said.

Avenatti acknowledged that malice will be hard to prove but said he was confident in the merits of the case. Pressed on why he filed the suit in New York, he noted that Trump continues to be a legal resident of the state of New York. He rejected the notion that the case is a publicity stunt.

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