Former President Donald Trump is doubling down on his “I am not Hitler” defamation lawsuit against CNN by adopting the Nazi strategy of attacking journalists as liars, with court papers claiming—without irony—that “Americans are split when asked if the media is actually an enemy of democracy.”
Since October, Trump has been waging war against the Cable News Network over the way it has increasingly drawn comparisons between his Make America Great Again movement and the rise of the Nazis in 1930s Germany.
But in the latest court filings, Trump’s lawyers paradoxically argued that now is the “perfect” time to peel back First Amendment protections for American journalists by asking courts to review legal precedent established in a 1964 case called New York Times v. Sullivan.
“The sustained defamation of falsely linking President Trump to Nazis provides a perfect vehicle for Supreme Court reexamination of Sullivan,” lawyers wrote in their Dec. 30 filing.
The former president’s disgust for journalists isn’t new. For years, he has attacked reporters as the “enemy of the people.” And political scientists who study authoritarianism have noted how his favorite insult against reporters—calling them “fake news”—is a near-direct translation of Lügenpresse, the derogatory term used by Nazis against who they called the “lying press.”
Trump, who tried to misuse the Justice Department and frivolous lawsuits to remain in power after losing re-election in 2020 and directed insurrectionists to march on Congress in 2021, is actively seeking a return to the White House in 2024. He is under federal investigation for his anti-democratic campaign of fraud and for inciting the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.
In the CNN lawsuit, his lawyers insist that “this case does not attack Constitutional principles or thwart legitimate political discourse,” even as their client, three weeks earlier, publicly called for tearing up the U.S. Constitution. Trump, still fuming over his loss to President Joe Biden, on Dec. 4 called for a new election in a Truth Social post that demanded “termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution.” The statement was not disavowed by Republicans, who largely plan to vote for whoever wins the Republican nomination for president—even if it turns out to be Trump.
The Dec. 30 court memo mentions “Hitler” 29 times and “Nazi” 21 times in a breathless screed that claims Trump was unfairly treated by the network. The memo largely hinges on something that CNN anchor Don Lemon said during a morning program when he asked whether journalists should reconfigure their news coverage of billionaire Elon Musk the same way they did with Trump—taking a hardened stance that recognizes a powerful individual as a threat to American values and norms.
Trump’s most recent court memo opens up with a quote from Lemon during his mid-December interview with journalist Ben Smith of Semafor, in which the anchor asks, ““Should we—should journalists pull out their Trump playbook in order to deal with what Elon Musk is doing at Twitter? Is it a—is it a page out of the same book?”
The court filing then goes on to attack CNN for repeatedly drawing comparisons between Trump’s right-wing, nationalist, and anti-democratic MAGA movement and Adolf Hitler’s right-wing, nationalist, and anti-democratic Nazi Party. Trump’s lawyers say that “being compared to Hitler in this manner causes and did cause reputational harm.”
“Some CNN’s audience members have been unjustly led to believe that [sic] plaintiff literally is a fascist leader,” Trump’s lawyers wrote. “CNN’s statements seriously attempt to falsely state that the plaintiff intentionally used a Nazi-like propaganda technique to preserve his political power.”
However, they refused to explain why the allusion doesn’t hold up, noting in a footnote that “there is no case law requiring a plaintiff to plead facts that show why a false statement is, in fact, false.” They wrote that their original lawsuit “clearly states” Trump “is not Hitler-like nor would be Hitler-like in any future political role.”
Trump is being represented by James M. Trusty of Washington, D.C., and Lindsey Halligan of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. They are two of the same attorneys he used to slow down the Department of Justice investigation into the way he hoarded classified documents long after he had the proper national security authority to do so at his oceanside estate of Mar-a-Lago in South Florida.
Trump takes issue with the way American journalists have come to regard his concerted effort to stay in power by peddling 2020 election conspiracy theories as the “Big Lie.” Court papers criticize how CNN in particular has broadcast historical imagery of Nazis as anchors discuss Trump’s insistence that he did indeed win the election, despite plain evidence to the contrary. Hitler used the term große Lüge, or “big lie,” to describe a deceit so large and outlandish that nobody would dare question it—and some historians have since used the term to explain how Hitler used that same tactic to blame German’s economic and political woes after World War I on Jews.
“Under these circumstances, the correlation between the ‘Big Lie,’ and Nazism is unmistakable,” Trump’s recent court filing states.
Journalists far and wide have indeed drawn parallels to Hitler’s authoritarianism and the threat to the future of American democracy posed by Trump’s unquenchable thirst for power. But when journalists do it, they tend to spell Hitler’s name correctly. In their filing, Trump’s lawyers repeatedly referred to “Adolph” Hitler.