Contrary to a popular liberal narrative, President Donald Trump never called the coronavirus itself a “hoax,” but a pro-Biden Super PAC, Priorities USA Action, launched a video ad twisting Trump’s words at a rally in order to make it seem like he had. When a TV station in Wisconsin aired the ad, the Trump campaign responded with a cease-and-desist letter, citing numerous fact-checks proving the ad false. The station kept running the ad, anyway.
On Monday, the Trump campaign filed a defamation lawsuit against the TV station, WJFW-NBC of Rhinelander, Wisc.
“It is disappointing that WJFW-NBC would knowingly continue to broadcast this blatantly false ad and perpetrate falsehoods on the American people, even after the Trump campaign provided proof in good faith of the ad’s falsity,” Jenna Ellis, senior legal advisor to the campaign, said in a statement. “We fully expected the station would recognize their error and immediately cease under their FCC obligations.”
“The Trump campaign is now left with no other option than to use the force of law to ensure these false and defamatory ads cease. Defamation law helps ensure that news outlets are accountable to viewers, who should be able to trust the accuracy and truth of content aired to the public,” Ellis added.
“WJFW- NBC has perpetrated a fraud on the public by recklessly broadcasting PUSA’s defamatory and false advertisement, which WJFW-NBC knew or should have known was produced through the use of technology that depicted a clearly false statement,” the lawsuit states.
As the suit explains, Trump condemned the left’s politicization of the coronavirus crisis against him in a speech in South Carolina on February 28, 2020. During the speech, he condemned the tactics of his political opponents, including the rush to impeach him over a phone call with the president of Ukraine. Echoing his previous response to allegations that his campaign “colluded” with Russia in 2016 — allegations which proved to be false — Trump called it the “impeachment hoax.”
“Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus,” the president added. He repeated the phrase “impeachment hoax” and then turned to the politicization of the coronavirus, saying, “this is their new hoax.”
Yet the Priorities USA Action ad stitched together audio clips to make it seem like Trump had said, “The coronavirus, this is their new hoax.” The lawsuit points out that the ad’s subtitles use capitalization to make it appear like Trump said this as one sentence.
Many independent fact-checkers have explained that the “Trump called the coronavirus a hoax” line is a flat-out lie. On the night of the president’s rally, Slate’s Will Saletan noted that Trump “was saying the hoax is that he’s handled it badly. Not the virus itself.”
When Politico ran an article headlined, “Trump rallies his base to treat coronavirus as a ‘hoax,'” Facebook’s independent fact-checker, the Daily Caller, rated the article false. Check Your Fact also rated the article false. Snopes also noted that Trump never called the virus a “hoax.” The Washington Post fact-checkers gave the Priorities USA Action ad “four Pinocchios.” Politifact and FactCheck.org also rated the ad false.
Between March 24 and April 6, WJFW-NBC ran the false ad no fewer than 43 times. On March 25, the Trump campaign sent the TV station a cease and desist letter that notified the station that the ad is “fake, deceptive, and fraudulent,” nay “defamatory.”
Despite the evidence in the cease and desist letter, the station continued to broadcast the ad, airing it thirty-six more times over the next eleven days. “Thus, WJFW-NBC continued to broadcast the PUSA advertisement with actual knowledge that the advertisement contained verifiably false information and, therefore, perpetuated a fraud on the public and/or acted with reckless disregard for the advertisement’s truth,” the lawsuit alleges.
In the lawsuit, the Trump campaign also explains that since WJFW-NBC is a licensed broadcast TV station under the Communications Act of 1934, it has an “obligation to operate in the public interest,” including a “responsibility to protect the public from false, misleading, and deceptive advertising.” This makes the TV station liable for the deceptive ad, the lawsuit argues.
“The ‘new hoax’ statement in the PUSA ad as broadcast by WJFW-NBC is defamatory of the Trump Campaign because it represents that the position of the Trump Campaign is that the coronavirus pandemic is a ‘new hoax.’ Falsely representing that statement as the position of the Trump Campaign is defamatory of the Trump Campaign because such false representations were intended to lower the reputation of the Trump Campaign in the estimation of the citizenry and deter persons from dealing with the Trump Campaign, including, by not voting for candidate Trump’s reelection,” the lawsuit alleges.
By continuing to air the ads after the cease and desist letter, “WJFW-NBC acted with reckless disregard as to the truth or falsity of the statements in the PUSA ad,” the suit claims.
This is far from the first time the Trump campaign has sued a media outlet for false statements. In February and March, the campaign sued The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN for defamation over false Russia collusion claims.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.