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Did Trump Just Hint He Wants to Sue British Spy Who Wrote Unverified Dossier?

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President-elect Donald Trump is not letting go of the unverified dossier published by BuzzFeed this week. In fact, a series of tweets posted early Friday morning might indicate that the person behind it could be in legal trouble.

Trump is calling out the author of the dossier, and his own assorted “political opponents,” saying they knew it false and sent it out anyway. The man has been identified by The Wall Street Journal as former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele. Steele reportedly fled his home, located south of London, after his name became attached to the dossier, which claims that Russia kept blackmail material against Trump, and that the Kremlin was assisting Trump for years.

So does Trump have a defamation case against Steele? Well, it depends. If the information is true, then no. No matter how damaging or salacious the material might be, if it’s true, Steele is in the clear.Trump claims the report, which circulated among political circles for weeks or months before BuzzFeed published it, is fake, and Russia has also denied it.

If the information, or at least damaging parts of it, are false, then it gets trickier. To prove a defamation case (libel for printed statements, slander for spoken ones), the statement has to be false, published to a third party, be damaging, and in the case of public figures like Trump, be made with “actual malice.” Actual malice means that the person making the false statement has to either know it’s false, or have reckless disregard for whether it’s false.

The statements here were clearly published to a third party, or else we wouldn’t know about it. And they can certainly be considered to be damaging, not only due to some graphic content, but because they claim that the next President of the United States and the Russian government had a long-standing partnership. So if the report is false, it’s just a question of whether Steele knew it was false or just didn’t care one way or the other.

But here’s the thing: Steele has a pretty good record when it comes to intelligence. He’s a former member of British MI6 (James Bond’s agency, for you cinephiles). In 2010, he provided critical information that led to the indictment of several FIFA soccer officials. As far as the Trump dossier, while the information is widely being considering unreliable, U.S. officials have told The Washington Post that Steele’s network of sources was credible. So it’s very unclear as to whether Steele knowingly or recklessly made false statements.

One thing that is clear is that this story won’t be going away for a while, and more details about the nature of the report may still be uncovered.

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