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Trump tweet mocking Stormy Daniels was free speech, not defamation, judge says

FILE - In this April 16, 2018 file photo, adult film actress Stormy Daniels speaks to members of the
Stormy Daniels outside a New York courthouse in April.
(Craig Ruttle / Associated Press)

A federal judge cast doubt Monday on a defamation claim that Stormy Daniels filed against President Trump for a tweet questioning the credibility of the adult-film actress.

Judge S. James Otero of U.S. District Court in Los Angeles said the Trump tweet that gave rise to Daniels’ lawsuit looked to him like free speech that “lies at the heart of the 1st Amendment.”

“This is the type of political discourse and commentary that takes place in elections all the time, and I’m troubled that there’s a claim here for defamation,” Otero said.

“Your honor,” Daniels’ attorney, Michael Avenatti, told the judge, “this was not political by any stretch of the imagination.”

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Otero cut off Avenatti, saying Trump’s tweet seemed to be protected speech by a public official (“he’s president of the United States; it doesn’t get higher than that”) about a public figure (“she’s a movie actress”).

Trump’s April 18 tweet came after Avenatti released a forensic artist’s sketch of a man whom Daniels said had threatened her with physical harm in 2011 if she spoke publicly about her alleged 2006 sexual encounter with Trump. The president has denied having sex with her.

Daniels told “60 Minutes” that the man approached her in a Las Vegas parking lot, glanced at her toddler and said it would be a shame “if something happened to her mom.”

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

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Attached to Trump’s tweet was another person’s tweet comparing the artist’s sketch to a photo of Daniels’ husband.

Trump’s lawyer, Charles Harder, described Trump’s tweet as a rare breach of his near-silence on Daniels after Avenatti had attacked the president more than 100 times on television.

“This is all done in this hyperbolic context of the political realm,” Harder said.

Another Daniels attorney, Ahmed Ibrahim, argued that the president wasn’t just stating a political opinion.

Rather, if it turns out Trump was involved in hiring the man allegedly dispatched to threaten Daniels, the tweet will be shown to be a knowingly false statement of fact made with malice, Ibrahim said.

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. -- MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 24, 2018: Attorney Michael Avenatti, right, speaks to media
Michael Avenatti speaks Monday outside U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Otero concluded by asking Harder whether Trump wanted Daniels to cover the president’s legal fees if the judge dismisses the case.

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Yes, Harder responded.

Outside the courthouse, Avenatti said there was a “palpable irony” in Harder’s free-speech argument on behalf of a president who “wants to jail journalists.”

Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, is also suing to void the October 2016 nondisclosure agreement that bars her from talking about her alleged affair with Trump.

Michael Cohen, the former Trump personal lawyer who set up the deal, pleaded guilty last month to a felony campaign finance violation for paying Daniels $130,000 to keep quiet in an attempt to influence the presidential election.

Cohen told a federal court that Trump instructed him to pay off Daniels. Trump has denied knowing ahead of time about the deal. Cohen was reimbursed by the Trump Organization, the president’s family business, prosecutors say.

After Cohen admitted the deal was a crime, Trump agreed to give up his right to pursue millions of dollars in damages against Daniels in a move to kill the litigation. Otero agreed Monday to hear arguments in the weeks ahead on whether the suit should be dismissed.

michael.finnegan@latimes.com

Twitter: @finneganLAT

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