Politicians lie a lot — here's why they almost never get sued for it

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As a candidate, Donald Trump was wrong more than he was right.

According to Politifact's Truth-O-Meter, 231 of the 331 statements Trump made during his presidential campaign — nearly 70% of what he said — was deemed either "Mostly False," "False," or "Pants On Fire."

SEE ALSO: Politicians lie a lot — and people are becoming less trusting

Many of those false statements were attacks directed at his opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was wrong just 26% of the time.

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U.S. President Barack Obama meets with President-elect Donald Trump (L) in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington November 10, 2016.REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. President Barack Obama (R) meets with President-elect Donald Trump to discuss transition plans in the White House Oval Office in Washington, U.S., November 10, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. President Barack Obama meets with President-elect Donald Trump (L) in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington November 10, 2016.REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. President Barack Obama (R) meets with President-elect Donald Trump to discuss transition plans in the White House Oval Office in Washington, U.S., November 10, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. President Barack Obama meets with President-elect Donald Trump (L) in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington November 10, 2016.REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. President Barack Obama meets with President-elect Donald Trump to discuss transition plans in the White House Oval Office in Washington, U.S., November 10, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. President Barack Obama (R) greets President-elect Donald Trump in the White House Oval Office in Washington, U.S., November 10, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. President Barack Obama meets with President-elect Donald Trump (L) to discuss transition plans in the White House Oval Office in Washington, U.S., November 10, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Obama and Trump discussed a range of domestic and foreign policy topics at the White House during their first meeting since Trump's stunning election victory.
U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with President-elect Donald Trump (L) to discuss transition plans in the White House Oval Office in Washington, U.S., November 10, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
U.S. President Barack Obama (R) greets President-elect Donald Trump in the White House Oval Office in Washington, U.S., November 10, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with President-elect Donald Trump (L) to discuss transition plans in the White House Oval Office in Washington, U.S., November 10, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
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Trump's claims were either ignorant and misguided, or they were outright lies.

Legal experts say that ambiguity is one reason politicians almost never bother suing each other for not telling the truth. Because of their celebrity, people like Trump and Clinton have much more to lose by hauling their opponents into court for libel suits they stand to gain.

"It's just not worth it," Stephen Solomon, associate director of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU, tells Business Insider.

'Actual malice'

The truth is, people can sue anyone or any company if they feel they've been defamed or slandered. For everyday folks, they only need to show the statements were wrong. But public figures are the subject of more scrutiny, so their burden of proof also includes "actual malice" — they have to prove the libelous claim was made on purpose.

"That's very hard to prove," Solomon says.

The logistics of suing someone are another issue. As much as politicians want to preserve their image, lawsuits are incredibly expensive and time-consuming, Solomon says. Even if the defamed party wins the suit, the election will be over by the time the court reaches a verdict. The defamation will have done its damage.

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Newspapers around the world react to Trump's win
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Newspapers around the world react to Trump's win
A businessman walks past copies of the London Evening Standard newspaper, featuring a picture of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump on its front page, waiting to be picked up in the square mile financial district of the City of London, U.K., on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016. Donald Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States in a stunning repudiation of the political establishment that jolted financial markets and likely will reorder the nation's priorities and fundamentally alter America's relationship with the world. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A Mexican holds a newspaper with headlines referring to the eventual triumph of Donald Trump on November 9, 2016 in Mexico City. / AFP / PEDRO PARDO (Photo credit should read PEDRO PARDO/AFP/Getty Images)
Mexican newspapers with their front page referring to the eventual triumph of US presidential candidate Donald Trump on November 9, 2016 in Mexico City. / AFP / YURI CORTEZ (Photo credit should read YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
A Mexican holds a newspaper with headlines about on the eventual triumph of Donald Trump on November 9, 2016 in Mexico City. / AFP / PEDRO PARDO (Photo credit should read PEDRO PARDO/AFP/Getty Images)
Copies of a special edition of the Financial Times newspaper, featuring a picture of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump on its front page, sit waiting to be picked up in the square mile financial district of the City of London, U.K., on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016. Donald Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States in a stunning repudiation of the political establishment that jolted financial markets and likely will reorder the nation's priorities and fundamentally alter America's relationship with the world. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A Mexican newspaper with its front page referring to the eventual triumph of US presidential candidate Donald Trump on November 9, 2016 in Mexico City. / AFP / YURI CORTEZ (Photo credit should read YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
A Mexican newspaper with its front page referring to the eventual triumph of US presidential candidate Donald Trump on November 9, 2016 in Mexico City. / AFP / YURI CORTEZ (Photo credit should read YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
A Mexican reads a newspaper with headlines about on the eventual triumph of Donald Trump on November 9, 2016 in Mexico City. / AFP / PEDRO PARDO (Photo credit should read PEDRO PARDO/AFP/Getty Images)
View of Guatemalan newspapers informing about the victory of US presidential candidate Donald Trump in their front pages, in Guatemala City on November 9, 2016. / AFP / JOHAN ORDONEZ (Photo credit should read JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Colombian newspapers report the victory of US presidential candidate Donald Trump on their front pages, in Medellin, Colombia, on November 9, 2016 / AFP / STR / RAUL ARBOLEDA (Photo credit should read RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images)
An 'I Voted' sticker adorns a newspaper at an election watch party organized by the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, China, on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016. Republican Donald Trump was projected to win North Carolina and Florida, an unexpectedly strong showing in results Tuesday night that potentially throws the balance in the presidential race to Michigan and Wisconsin, key parts of Hillary Clinton's Midwestern electoral firewall. Photographer: Anthony Kwan/Bloomberg via Getty Images
TOKYO, JAPAN - NOVEMBER 09: A man distributes an extra edition of a newspaper featuring a front page report on the U.S. Presidential Election and Republican President-elect Donald Trump on November 9, 2016 in Tokyo, Japan. Donald Trump defeated Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton to become the 45th president of the United States. (Photo by Yuya Shino/Getty Images)
Chilean newspapers report the victory of US presidential candidate Donald Trump on their front pages, in Santiago, on November 9, 2016 / AFP / MARTiN BERNETTi (Photo credit should read MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/Getty Images)
An Iraqi man holds an edition of Iraqi daily newspaper Azzaman displaying pictures of US presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in Baghdad on November 9, 2016. Billionaire populist Donald Trump, tapping into an electorate fed up with Washington insiders, was on the verge of a shock victory over Hillary Clinton in a historic US presidential election that sent world markets into meltdown. / AFP / SABAH ARAR (Photo credit should read SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images)
The New York Post newspaper featuring president-elect Donald Trump's victory is displayed on a New York newsstand, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016 in New York. Donald Trump claimed his place Wednesday as America's 45th president, an astonishing victory for the celebrity businessman and political novice who capitalized on voters' economic anxieties, took advantage of racial tensions and overcame a string of sexual assault allegations on his way to the White House. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
A Clarin newspaper, left, with a headline reading in Spanish "Trump was winning and U.S begins an era that shocks the world" with a picture of President-elect Donald Trump is prepared to be delivered outside a building in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
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What's more, there could be untold damage to the politician's reputation for them having brought the suit in the first place.

On the one hand, undecided voters could see the move as a sign the candidate is too petty for political office. But the larger drawback is that the suit will inevitably lead to a discovery process, in which the politician would have to divulge private information they may want to keep secret.

If the politician's goal is to maintain their image at all times, discovery could end up doing more damage than if they'd never brought the suit at all.

It's happened before

Some local politicians still see the value in pursuing defamation cases, however.

In 2010, Iowa senator Rick Bertrand filed a defamation suit against his opponent Rick Mullin and the Democratic Party for a TV ad that claimed Bertrand was once a "salesman for the most unethical company in the world," the pharmaceutical company Takeda. It also claimed the company sold a dangerous sleeping drug for children.

Bertrand claimed the ad lied in tying him to a drug he "did not carry in a division of the company [he] never worked for." He won the case in 2012 — $31,000 from Mullin and $200,000 from the Democratic Party. In 2014, however, the Iowa Supreme Court overruled the decision on the grounds of free speech.

Chief Justice Mark Cady said the case did not meet the threshold for actual malice.

That's why defamation suits among public figures are so rare, and between politicians even more so. It's also why certain pieces of news, like Donald Trump's threat to sue the New York Times in October or Melania Trump's August threat to sue 10 other news outlets, are somewhat misleading. In most cases, the threats are empty.

Legal experts (and, deep down, perhaps the politicians themselves) know the gain is minimal, and solely monetary. Smarter politics is knowing how to work the court of public opinion.

"That's been the political tradition back to the time of Washington," Solomon says. "Campaigns have often been nasty and vitriolic, and they rarely give way to libel suits."

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