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Trump Campaign Sues Wisconsin TV Station Over Ad Criticizing COVID-19 Response

COLORADO SPRINGS, CO - FEBRUARY 20: President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a Keep America Great rally on February 20, 2020 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Cory Gardner, a first-term Republican up for reelection this year, joined Trump at the rally. (Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)
By Laura Temme, Esq. on April 16, 2020 11:23 AM

President Trump's re-election campaign committee filed a lawsuit against a Wisconsin TV station this week, claiming an ad run on the station was defamatory. The ad, produced by a liberal super PAC called Priorities USA, ran on WJFW-TV based in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. It first aired around March 24.

Entitled "Exponential Threat," the advertisement criticized the Trump Administration's response to the COVID-19 pandemic - using the President's own words.

Statements highlighted in the ad include Mr. Trump's claim on January 22 that his administration had the virus "totally under control," and his statement that characterized the disease as "one person coming in from China."

Who Is Disregarding the Truth?

The problem for the Trump campaign will be meeting the legal standard for defamation. They'd have to prove that WJFW-TV ran the ad knowing it was false, or with reckless disregard for the truth.

The campaign claims that multiple "independent fact-checking organizations" concluded that the ad's central message was false. Specifically, the complaint points to an audio clip that depicts President Trump saying, "The coronavirus, this is their new hoax."

And it's true - in the February campaign speech this audio comes from, President Trump doesn't say those exact words right next to each other. However, there's an argument to be made that the sentiment is there. Around the six-minute mark, the President begins speaking on the actions of the Democratic party. After stating that the Democrats were "politicizing the coronavirus," Mr. Trump went on to say:

"They tried the impeachment hoax. That was on a perfect conversation. They tried anything. They tried it over and over again. They lost. It is all turning. Think of it. And this is their new hoax ."

A Warning to Other Stations?

Given the nature of TV advertising, there's little the campaign can gain from a lawsuit at this point other than monetary damages. The ad can't be unseen, and by the time the suit was filed, it had already mostly completed its two-week run.

Does the Trump campaign really want money from a Northwoods TV station? Probably not. But what this suit could do is make other stations hesitant to run negative ads about the President. Most local stations don't have the resources to defend themselves against a lawsuit like this. And it's hard not to assume that Wisconsin is of particular interest to the Trump campaign, given the region's essential role in the 2016 election.

Related Resources:

SCOTUS Overturns Two Lower Courts in Not Allowing Certain WI Absentee Ballots to Be Counted (FindLaw's Supreme Court)

Fifth Circuit Dismisses Challenge to Texas Winner-Take-All Voting (FindLaw's Fifth Circuit)

Supreme Court Allows Climate Change Scientist's Defamation Case to Move Forward (FindLaw's Supreme Court)

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