In an opinion today, Judge Vyskocil granted Fox News’s motion to dismiss a defamation claim centered on an episode of Tucker Carlson Tonight. In the episode, Carlson was responding to President Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen having pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations for arranging to pay settlements to two women alleged to have had affairs with Trump. Carlson was critical of media suggestions that Trump should be impeached or held criminally responsible for the payments:
Two women approached Donald Trump and threatened to ruin his career and humiliate his family if he doesn’t give them money. Now, that sounds like a classic case of extortion. Yet, for whatever reason, Trump caves to it, and he directs Michael Cohen to pay the ransom. Now, more than two years later, Trump is a felon for doing this. It doesn’t seem to make any sense.
Judge Vyskocil ruled that, in context, this was not a literal accusation of extortion, but intended to frame the debate in the guest commentary segment that followed:
The context in which the offending statements were made here make it abundantly clear that Mr. Carlson was not accusing [the plaintiff] of actually committing a crime. As a result, his statements are not actionable. While Mr. Carlson used the word “extortion,” Defendant submits that the use of that word or an accusation of extortion, absent more, is simply “loose, figurative, or hyperbolic language” that does not give rise to a defamation claim. The Court agrees. Mr. Carlson’s statements were in response to contemporaneous suggestions that President Trump could be impeached due to campaign finance violations stemming from the payments . . ., an issue that attracted significant public and political concern and led to sustained debate across media platforms.
When the statements are read in context, it is apparent that Mr. Carlson is remarking on hypocrisy he perceives, i.e. that Mr. Cohen could be prosecuted, and the President impeached, for actions falling short of the conduct [the plaintiff] purportedly engaged in during the President’s campaign.