Trump campaign sues local station over ad that quotes Trump

The Trump campaign threatened to sue stations that aired a campaign ad that quotes Trump. Evidently, it wasn't an idle threat.
Image: President Donald Trump waves to supporters during a "Keep America Great" campaign rally in Sunrise
President Donald Trump waves to supporters during a "Keep America Great" campaign rally in Sunrise, Fla., on Nov. 26, 2019.Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images file

Priorities USA, a leading super PAC affiliated with Democratic politics, unveiled a new ad three weeks ago, hitting Donald Trump on his response to the coronavirus crisis. The ad is pretty straightforward: it features direct quotes from the president about the pandemic, as viewers see a chart showing the number of American coronavirus cases steadily climbing.

The super PAC has invested $6 million in the ad campaign, which began airing in several battleground states the week of March 23. As we discussed soon after, however, the Trump campaign sent "cease and desist" letters to television stations, warning that they should reject the 30-second commercial to "avoid costly and time consuming litigation."

Evidently, it wasn't an idle threat. The Republican operation sent out this press release yesterday.

Donald J. Trump for President, Inc. today filed a lawsuit against WJFW-NBC of Rhinelander, WI for defamation in the wake of an advertisement carried by the station that contained intentionally false and defamatory statements about President Trump. The ad produced by Priorities USA, a super PAC supporting Joe Biden's candidacy, and broadcast by WJFW-NBC, used digitally manipulated clips of President Trump's voice to fabricate unsubstantiated meaning in the President's words. The suit, filed in Price County, WI circuit court, followed a cease-and-desist letter and supporting documentation sent on March 25, 2020. In spite of the letter and documentation, WJFW-NBC continued to run the defamatory ad.

The court filing, seeking unspecified damages, is online here. It's one of several media-related lawsuits Trump's campaign has filed of late, following suits against the New York Times, CNN, and the Washington Post, each of which ran opinion pieces the president's political operation didn't like.

At the heart of this latest case, however, appears to be a single word: "hoax." The Priorities USA ad features a series of presidential quotes -- in fact, Trump's voice is the only one heard in the commercial -- but it was the Republican's "hoax" reference that his campaign appears most concerned about.

Circling back to our earlier coverage, Team Trump's argument is that, in context, when the Republican used the word "hoax" at a campaign rally, he wasn't explicitly referring to the virus itself.

At a press briefing soon after the event, when a reporter asked him whether he regrets throwing around careless and provocative rhetoric, Trump insisted that what he sees as a "hoax" is the idea that his administration has failed to properly respond to the coronavirus pandemic. "[W]e've done such a good job," he said, adding, "[T]he 'hoax' was used with respect to Democrats and what they were saying. It was a hoax, what they were saying."

Part of the problem with the pushback is it's awfully difficult to take seriously the idea that the White House has done a "good job" in its response to the crisis. The other part of the problem is that the Trump campaign's efforts to denounce the Priorities USA ad appears to have generated more interest in the commercial the president's team didn't want people to see. As of this morning, the spot has been viewed online over 16 million times.

It would appear, in other words, that the Streisand Effect kicked in.

As for the local NBC affiliate that's now being targeted with litigation, its owner isn't altogether sure why he's been singled out by the Trump campaign. "Why they selected my little station in Northern Wisconsin, I have no idea," Rockfleet Broadcasting President R. Joseph Fuchs told TPM yesterday.