Trump Campaign Sues Small Wisconsin TV Station Over Critical Super PAC Ad

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April 13, 2020 2:45 p.m.

The owner of a northern Wisconsin television station is stumped as to why the President’s reelection campaign is suing over a critical super PAC ad it ran.

“Why they selected my little station in Northern Wisconsin, I have no idea,” Rockfleet Broadcasting President R. Joseph Fuchs told TPM on the phone Monday. Rockfleet owns three stations including WJFW-TV, the NBC affiliate in Rhinelander, Wisconsin targeted by the campaign.

Trump’s slim victory in Wisconsin in 2016 was key for his ultimate edge in the Electoral College against Hillary Clinton.

Now, his campaign is suing the TV station there over an ad that’s gone viral in recent weeks, from the Democratic-aligned super PAC Priorities USA. Last month, the campaign said it’d sent “cease-and-desist” letters to stations in several key swing states over the ad.

Dave Heller, deputy director of the Media Law Resource Center, told TPM it seemed likely that the Trump campaign was sending a “shot across the bow to other local television stations” by suing WJFW rather than the super PAC that paid to air 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,” Heller said.

The ad, “Exponential Threat,” shows clips of Trump downplaying the threat posed by the novel coronavirus, contrasted with a graphic showing the increase in Americans infected with the virus.

In the “cease-and-desist” letter last month, and again in its lawsuit filing Monday, the campaign said a piece of Trump’s dialogue in the ad was defamatory.

Splicing two separate bits of audio together, the ad quotes Trump as saying at a campaign rally, “The coronavirus … this is their new hoax.”

Trump contends he was referring to Democrats’ effort to criticize his handling of the pandemic as a “hoax” — not the virus itself.

“Absent the deceitful alteration of the audio, it is clear that ‘this’ does not refer to the coronavirus and instead refers directly to the Democrats’ politicization of the pandemic,” the suit alleges.

Heller, of the Media Law Resource Center, said it may prove difficult for the campaign to make its case if the suit ever goes to trial.

“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,” Heller said. “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 announcement adds to a series of legal actions taken by the reelection campaign against media outlets.

In recent weeks, Trump’s campaign has separately sued The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN for pieces from opinion writers that it alleged showed “a systematic pattern of bias” and “reckless disregard for the truth,” among other things.

Rather than targeting the super PAC behind the ad, the Trump campaign said in a press release on its cease-and-desist letter last month that it was targeting “local television stations” in the key swing states where it was running: “Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.”

In a statement Monday, Priorities USA Chairman Guy Cecil said Trump “doesn’t want voters to hear the truth and he’s trying to bully TV stations into submission.”

“We will never stop airing the facts and holding the president accountable for his actions,” Cecil said.

On the phone, Fuchs — who is also the chairman of the major newspaper chain MNG Enterprises, known as Digital First Media — said WJFW has “always been apolitical.”

Fuchs also said that, to his knowledge, the suit had not actually been served yet. “They had 10 inches of snow up there last night,” he noted, referring to Rhinelander, Wisconsin.

The Trump campaign published an unfiled version of the legal paperwork in an email announcing the action.

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