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Trump Campaign Claims NBC Affiliate Defamed the President by Airing Ad Using His Own Words


President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign has filed a lawsuit against a small market NBC affiliate in Wisconsin’s north woods after the television station aired an advertisement from a Democratic super PAC which the campaign alleged was “false and defamatory.” At issue are the president’s own words — and how they were edited.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in Wisconsin’s Price County Circuit Court against WJFW-TV, centers on an ad produced by Priorities USA (PUSA) called “Existential Threat.” The ad depicts a graph illustrating the growing number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. alongside President Trump’s statements downplaying the threat posed by the global pandemic.

The campaign’s complaint takes particular issue with the opening lines of the ad, which splices together two separate Trump statements to read: “The coronavirus, this is their new hoax.” The tone and deflection of the speech between the first and second phrases is quite different, but the Trump Campaign’s lawsuit suggests the text on the screen contains a comma to connect the phrases in a way which suggests they were uttered together.

“Contrary to the PUSA ad as broadcast by WJFW-NBC, the South Carolina Campaign Speech does not in fact contain the statement: ‘The coronavirus, this is their new hoax,'” the complaint states. “The PUSA ad’s statement is verifiably false when compared to the actual words of the South Carolina Campaign Speech.”

Though the lawsuit refers to the defendant as WJFW-NBC, the lawsuit is formally filed against Northland Television, LLC, the corporate owner of the local affiliate. The affiliate is not owned by NBC but broadcasts the network’s programming. The station operates in the Wausau/Rhinelander, Wis. television market in the north-central part of the state. The market contains 158,720 television households according to 2019 market rankings released by the ratings company Nielsen. Wisconsin is a critical swing state, and presidential campaigns have traditionally monitored the state’s polls — and its media products — very closely.

During his Feb. 28, South Carolina rally, the president told the crowd that Democrats were intentionally politicizing the coronavirus as a means of harming his chances at re-election. There, he claimed the attacks at the time were akin to those leveled against him during the investigation into Russian election interference.

Here are the president’s full comments for context:

“Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus. You know that, right? Coronavirus. They’re politicizing it. We did one of the great jobs, you say, ‘How’s President Trump doing?’, ‘Oh, nothing, nothing.’ They have no clue, they don’t have any clue. They can’t even count their votes in Iowa, they can’t even count. No, they can’t. They can’t count their votes. One of my people came up to me and said, ‘Mr. President, they tried to beat you on Russia, Russia, Russia.’ That didn’t work out too well. They couldn’t do it. They tried the impeachment hoax. That was on a perfect conversation. They tried anything, they tried it over and over, they’ve been doing it since he got in. It’s all turning, they lost. It’s all turning, think of it, think of it. And this is their new hoax. But you know we did something that’s been pretty amazing. We have 15 people in this massive country and because of the fact that we went early, we went early, we could have had a lot more than that.” (emphasis added).

Trump then proceeded to downplay the severity of the virus, comparing it to the seasonal flu.

Per the lawsuit, “[c]andidate Trump’s actual remarks demonstrate that he was specifically referring to the Democrats’ politicization of the coronavirus pandemic when he used the word ‘hoax.'”

Priorities USA, which took out the ad, released a response to the lawsuit:

“This is pretty simple. Donald Trump doesn’t want voters to hear the truth and he’s trying to bully TV stations into submission. 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.”

This is the fourth lawsuit filed by the Trump campaign against a news organization. As previously reported by Law&Crime, the campaign has also filed long-shot lawsuits against The New York Times, CNN, and The Washington Post.

See here for the full lawsuit.

[Image via screen capture from Priorities USA television ad]

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Jerry Lambe is a journalist at Law&Crime. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School and previously worked in financial securities compliance and Civil Rights employment law.