Trump campaign sues Wisconsin TV station over ad using his words on coronavirus

Anti-Trump ad has aired on many stations, but the campaign is only suing one. Its owner has "no idea" why

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published April 15, 2020 5:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump (Twitter/@prioritiesUSA)
Donald Trump (Twitter/@prioritiesUSA)

President Trump's re-election campaign filed a lawsuit against a Wisconsin television station arguing that an ad aired by the outlet was misleading and false.

The Democratic super PAC Priorities USA paid to air the ad on numerous stations across the country. For some reason, the Trump campaign targeted a single NBC affiliate, WJFW-TV of Rhinelander, Wisconsin, in the lawsuit. The ad uses soundbites of Trump downplaying the coronavirus threat while showing a chart displaying the skyrocketing number of confirmed cases.

The ad edited together clips appearing to show Trump describe the virus as a "hoax," though he has insisted that he was referring to the politicization of his widely criticized handling of the virus.

"The advertisement ... does not just contain false and defamatory statements about President Trump — it is far more insidious and, ultimately, far more dangerous," the lawsuit says. "The advertisement was produced through the use of digital technology by taking audio clips from Trump Campaign events and piecing those clips together to manufacture a blatantly false statement that was never said by President Trump."

The campaign accused the station of having "perpetuated a fraud" by "recklessly broadcasting" the "defamatory and false advertisement."

The suit argues that the station was aware of this because the campaign sent it a cease and desist letter that "clearly notified" the outlet about the "fake, deceptive, and fraudulent" ad.  

The suit seeks unspecified damages.

Guy Cecil, the chairman of Priorities USA, argued that the ad merely uses Trump's own words.

"This is pretty simple. Donald Trump doesn't want voters to hear the truth and he's trying to bully TV stations into submission," he said in a statement. "The truth is that Trump ignored warnings from experts and his own team and downplayed the coronavirus even as it spread unchecked across the country and the world. Americans are now suffering as a result of his inaction. We will never stop airing the facts and holding the president accountable for his actions."

It's unclear why the campaign targeted a small local outlet in Wisconsin when the ad aired on stations across the nation.

"Why they selected my little station in Northern Wisconsin, I have no idea," R. Joseph Fuchs, the president of the station's parent company, told Talking Points Memo, adding that the affiliate has "always been apolitical."

Dave Heller, the deputy director of the Media Law Resource Center, told the outlet that the campaign was using the lawsuit as a "shot across the bow to other local television stations" by suing a small outlet rather than the super PAC that made the ad.

"It's really a very risky area to go into, to be asking courts to subject every statement back-and-forth between candidates to the standards of a defamation suit," he said. "Obviously, broadcasters and news publishers try as best they can to point out when the candidates are not being truthful or are saying false statements. But that's a far different proposition from saying, 'Oh, well, you broadcast something that may be false, therefore you're responsible for defamation damages.'"

The Trump campaign has also sued The New York Times, Washington Post and CNN over op-eds about Trump's relationship with Russia, which the campaign claimed showed "a systematic pattern of bias" and "reckless disregard for the truth."

"The Trump Campaign has turned to the courts to try to punish an opinion writer for having an opinion they find unacceptable," a spokesperson for the Times said after the suit was filed. "Fortunately, the law protects the right of Americans to express their judgments and conclusions, especially about events of public importance. We look forward to vindicating that right in this case."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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