A former Playboy model who has said she had an affair with Donald Trump before he was president sued Fox News on Thursday, saying that Tucker Carlson, one of the network’s hosts, had intentionally defamed her on his television show.
Karen McDougal said Carlson had falsely accused her of extortion last year when he said that she “approached Donald Trump and threatened to ruin his career and humiliate his family if he doesn’t give them money.”
McDougal said in the lawsuit, which was filed in a New York state court, that she never threatened Trump. She is seeking damages from Fox News for harming her reputation, but she does not name Carlson as a defendant. The network is responsible for his comments, she said, and his accusations were reckless and easy to verify as false.
First Amendment protections make defamation lawsuits difficult to win, and the cases often are settled or dismissed by a court before trial.
Fox News said in a statement that it would “vigorously defend Tucker Carlson against these meritless claims.”
Eric Bernstein, the lawyer representing McDougal, said she was “harassed, embarrassed and ridiculed” after Carlson’s comments.
“Media outlets like Fox News must learn that they can’t mislead for ratings,” he said. “They hurt real people like Karen McDougal when they do so.”
McDougal has said she first met Trump at the Playboy Mansion in 2006 when he was filming an episode of “Celebrity Apprentice.” They had a 10-month affair, she said, until she ended the relationship because she felt increasingly guilty about Trump cheating on his wife. Trump has denied the affair.
Shortly before the 2016 presidential election, The National Enquirer bought the rights to McDougal’s story for $150,000 and then did not publish it, a practice to suppress damaging information known as “catch and kill.” McDougal was bound by the deal, which restricted her from discussing the alleged affair, until April 2018, when she reached a settlement with American Media Inc., which owns The Enquirer.
On the Dec. 10, 2018, episode of “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” Carlson referred to The Enquirer’s payment as “ransom” and said McDougal’s behavior “sounds like a classic case of extortion.” He did not name McDougal, who lives in Arizona, but he did show a picture of her.
When The Wall Street Journal first reported on The Enquirer’s payment to McDougal, a spokeswoman for Trump said his campaign had no knowledge of it. But Trump discussed paying The Enquirer for the rights to McDougal’s story with Michael Cohen, who was then his lawyer, according to a secret recording made by Cohen that was released last year.
“No matter which version of Trump’s statements one believes, Trump never once claimed that he was extorted” by McDougal, Bernstein wrote in the lawsuit.
A reasonable person watching the show would have thought that McDougal was a criminal, Bernstein said in the lawsuit. He said Carlson and Fox News did not conduct “even a cursory investigation” into the claims it aired.
The lawsuit noted that Fox News’ website describes Carlson as the “sworn enemy of lying” and that he prefaced his claims about McDougal by saying, “Remember the facts of the story — these are undisputed.”