Citing the "fair report privilege," a federal judge ruled in favor of BuzzFeed Wednesday over a defamation lawsuit connected to the anti-Trump, Democrat-funded Steele dossier, which helped spark the Russia "collusion" investigations.
Though multiple outlets knew about the infamous Steele dossier, in January 2017, BuzzFeed chose to publish the salacious and still unverified document, which included not only outlandish accusations against Donald Trump but also allegations that some companies owned by Russian internet entrepreneur Aleksej Gubarev were involved in Russian hacking efforts. After Gubarev complained about his companies being accused without evidence, BuzzFeed blacked out the references, but the damage was already done. Gubarev sued the outlet for libel in October 2017.
After what appeared to be a major setback on Tuesday when the judge ruled that Gubarev was a private citizen rather than a public figure, BuzzFeed's lawyers maintained that their argument still held water: the publication of the dossier was warranted because it was "the subject of official action by our government, briefed to two consecutive presidents, and under active and ongoing investigation by the FBI."
On Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Ursula Ungaro ruled in favor of BuzzFeed's motion for summary judgment on the case, a decision celebrated by editor-in-chief Ben Smith, who provides a summary of the company's defense in a statement posted online. In the statement, Smith works in some quick jabs at Trump, his former lawyer Michael Cohen (who dropped his own defamation suit against BuzzFeed last year) and a certain unnamed "major news anchor" (NBC's Chuck Todd, who told Smith that he effectively published "fake news").
"When we published the Steele Dossier in 2017, we were met with outrage from many corners — a major news anchor and President Trump deemed it 'fake news'; and several Russian businessman, plus Michael Cohen, sued for defamation," said Smith in the statement. "Today, almost two years later, a federal judge has vindicated our decision. As Judge Ungaro affirmed in her ruling, a key principle underlying the First Amendment is that the public has a right to know about actions taken by its government. As we have said from the start, a document that had been circulated at the highest levels of government, under active investigation by the FBI, and briefed to two successive presidents, is clearly the subject of 'official action.' Moreover, its publication has contributed to the American people's understanding of what is happening in their country and their government. We are thrilled by today's outcome, and thank Judge Ungaro for taking the time to consider this case on its merits."
BuzzFeed was blasted from both sides for its decision to publish the unverified dossier, which contains some wild accusations, including the infamous "golden showers" episode. The centrality of the dossier in the initial investigations into Trump and his associates has become increasingly clear since its publication. FBI officials used the unverified document as "evidence" in a FISA application to spy on Trump associate Carter Page, despite policy requiring such evidence to be verified.
The dossier was produced by ex-British intelligence agent Christopher Steele for oppo-research firm Fusion GPS on behalf of the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign.