In my column yesterday, I discussed the major news story out of the Guardian that former Trump Campaign Chair Paul Manafort repeatedly met with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The Guardian reported that Manafort visited Assange in Ecuador’s London embassy in 2013, 2015 and in spring 2016. That last visit allegedly occurred around the same time as Manafort’s selection as Trump campaign chair. Ecuador’s Senain intelligence agency reportedly said that the logs include “Paul Manaford [sic]” and mentioned “Russians.” Now however Manafort and Wikileaks have completely denied the story and Manafort charged that the story is “totally false and deliberately libelous.” If so, that could lead to an interesting defamation lawsuit that should be relatively easy to prove either way.
After the story hit, WikiLeaks said on Twitter that it was willing “to bet … a million dollars and the editor’s head” that the story was wrong and that the group is launching a legal defense fund.
Remember this day when the Guardian permitted a serial fabricator to totally destroy the paper’s reputation. @WikiLeaks is willing to bet the Guardian a million dollars and its editor’s head that Manafort never met Assange. https://archive.fo/pUjrj
Manafort held secret talks with Assange in Ecuadorian embassy | US ne…
archived 27 Nov 2018 14:26:32 UTC
Manafort stated “This story is totally false and deliberately libelous. I have never met Julian Assange or anyone connected to him. I have never been contacted by anyone connected to Wikileaks, either directly or indirectly. I have never reached out to Assange or Wikileaks on any matter.”
Over 50 years ago, the Supreme Court decision in New York Times v. Sullivan set the governing standard for public officials (and later extended to public figures) in suing critics. The Supreme Court recognized the danger of such civil liability in creating a chilling effect on reporters and their companies in the coverage of political figures. Imposing a high standard for proof of defamation, Justice William Brennan sought to give the free press “breathing space” to carry out its key function in our system. The “actual malice” standard requires a showing that the newspaper published a false report with either actual knowledge of its falsity or a reckless disregard of the truth.
If Manafort is telling the truth, this could be an actionable case. While the Guardian cites sources, the story was a shocker precisely because it seemed so unlikely given the level of surveillance that such visits would not have been confirmed before now. Moreover, it would have been surprising for the Special Counsel to go after other figures in the Russian hacking allegations but never mention these meetings in the “speaking indictments” filed with federal courts.
Accordingly, this would be a fascinating legal action for Manafort to bring. The question is whether he wants a new legal challenge when he has a Special Counsel declaring him in violation of a plea bargain and a jail sentence that could keep him in jail for the rest of his life if Mueller gets his way.