New fundraising figures shed a brighter light on why Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., has endured weeks of ridicule and mocking over a pair of lawsuits he brought to defend his honor against parody Twitter accounts and local news reporters.
In 2017, Nunes co-sponsored the aptly-named Discouraging Frivolous Lawsuits Act. The then-chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence sought to punish citizens who dare sue polluters by assuring that concerned citizens get saddled with the defense’s legal fees if they don’t prevail in court. In 2019, he's filed two lawsuits against media outlets he claims have been unfair to him.
While there is likely no chance that a public figure like Nunes will win his case, the former Trump transition team member filed a lawsuit in Virginia state court last week alleging that a reporter from the Fresno Bee conspired with a political operative to derail Nunes' oversight work into the Hillary Clinton campaign and Russian election interference. This is the second frivolous lawsuit Nunes has filed in the past month. In March, he hit Twitter with a $150 million lawsuit because some of its users made fun of him.
Nunes is upset that the Bee, which had endorsed him eight times, turned on him in a recent article. His lawsuit hinges on a May 23, 2018, Fresno Bee story headlined: “A yacht, cocaine, prostitutes: Winery partly owned by Nunes sued after fundraiser event.” The story never suggests that Nunes himself was on the boat or took part in the party. This lawsuit is getting kicked to the curb eventually; it will not play out. In a statement, the Bee and McClatchy called the lawsuit “a baseless attack on local journalism and a free press” and noted that Nunes never asked for a correction in the 10 months since the report was published.
“I am absolutely sure that they do not want this to get to discovery so that we find out who their sources are,” said Nunes on Fox News in response to McClatchy’s statement. “Somebody gave them the phony information that the National Rifle Association was involved with Russia collusion, somebody gave them the phony information that [Michael] Cohen was in Prague when he wasn’t, somebody gave them phony information about me that they ran over and over again across all of their platforms and digitally accusing me of federal crimes. That’s not OK.”
He promised Fox News viewers that he would use the law to go after other outlets. “We sued Twitter because they were shadow banning me -- they’re banning conservatives a few weeks ago, we’re taking it to the courts. Now we’re looking at McClatchy but we are actually going to go after several news media outlets. It is not OK, We are public figures.”
As a public figure, “actual malice” must be proven in order for damages to be awarded. But there’s little evidence the newspaper printed false statements of fact which harmed the congressman and caused financial damages. Nunes is trying to keep a continuous stream of lawsuits aimed at his relatively small hometown paper in an effort to bankrupt it by filing suits that McClatchy is forced to defend. It also allows him to try to discredit the Bee as "left-wing media" and "fake news", both pages directly out of Donald Trump's playbook.
Nunes raised $1.1 million for his 2020 re-election during the first three months of the year, buoyed by repeated appearances on Fox News to rail against what he has called the “biggest perpetrator of fake news.” Nunes’ frivolous lawsuit is not about actually winning. Its purpose is so Fox News can paint him as a victim of the mainstream media. Even Fox News' own Judge Andrew Napolitano has said Nunes' suits stand no chance. His complaint may never get to the judgment phase, but it will certainly serve its purpose.