President Trump’s re-election campaign sued The New York Times for libel on Wednesday, alleging that an Op-Ed article published by the newspaper falsely asserted a “quid pro quo” between Russian officials and Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Mr. Trump often threatens to sue media organizations but rarely follows through. The lawsuit, filed in New York State court in Manhattan, is the first time his political operation has taken legal action against an American news outlet since he took office.
The lawsuit concerns an essay published by the Opinion section of The Times in March 2019. The article, headlined “The Real Trump-Russia Quid Pro Quo,” was written by Max Frankel, who served as executive editor of The Times from 1986 to 1994. (The Opinion section of The Times operates separately from its newsroom.)
In the essay, Mr. Frankel wrote about communications between Mr. Trump’s inner circle and Russian emissaries in the lead-up to the 2016 election. He concluded that, rather than any “detailed electoral collusion,” the Trump campaign and Russian officials instead “had an overarching deal”: “the quid of help in the campaign against Hillary Clinton for the quo of a new pro-Russian foreign policy.”
The Trump lawsuit argues that this conclusion “is false” and that The Times published the essay “knowing it would misinform and mislead its own readers.” The suit also accuses The Times, without evidence, of harboring “extreme bias against and animosity toward” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign.
The Times responded shortly after the suit was filed on Wednesday.
“The Trump campaign has turned to the courts to try to punish an opinion writer for having an opinion they find unacceptable,” Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for The Times, said in a statement.
“Fortunately, the law protects the right of Americans to express their judgments and conclusions, especially about events of public importance,” Ms. Murphy added. “We look forward to vindicating that right in this case.”
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Trump campaign by Charles J. Harder, a lawyer with a reputation for waging aggressive legal battles against prominent news organizations.
Mr. Harder is best known for representing Terry G. Bollea, the former professional wrestler known as Hulk Hogan, in a lawsuit against Gawker Media that was secretly underwritten by the tech investor Peter Thiel. The suit, which concerned the publication of a sex video, resulted in a $140 million decision that led to Gawker Media’s bankruptcy and forced the site’s sale.
Mr. Harder also represented Melania Trump, Mr. Trump’s wife, when she sued The Daily Mail, a British tabloid, in 2016, over what she said were “false and defamatory statements,” including that a modeling agency she worked for in the 1990s was also an escort service. The Daily Mail ultimately apologized, retracted the article and paid damages in a settlement.
Mr. Trump, whose public vilification of the news media has little precedent for someone in his office, has ratcheted up his attacks on the press over the past year. Though he has accused The Times of “treason,” tweeted the phrase “fake news” hundreds of times, and repeatedly warned of pulling broadcast licenses, his campaign’s lawsuit against The Times is the first concrete legal broadside against a news outlet of his tenure.
It is not, however, Mr. Trump’s first time going to court against a journalist. In 2006, Mr. Trump sued Timothy L. O’Brien for libel after the publication of Mr. O’Brien’s biography, “TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald.” The case was dismissed three years later. (Mr. O’Brien, who previously worked as a reporter and editor at The Times, is currently a senior adviser to Michael R. Bloomberg’s presidential campaign.)
The Times is also defending itself in a defamation suit brought by Sarah Palin, the former Republican vice-presidential nominee, over an editorial published in the Opinion pages that incorrectly linked her to a 2011 mass shooting that severely wounded Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona representative. Ms. Palin’s case was dismissed by a Federal District Court, but an appellate court reinstated the suit last year.
Nicole Hong and Alain Delaquérière contributed reporting.