In late March 2020, U.S. President Donald Trump's reelection campaign threatened to sue television stations for defamation and warned that their broadcasting licenses could be revoked if they continued to air a campaign advertisement created by Priorities USA Action, a Democratic super PAC.
The ad showed a steep graph of growing coronavirus cases in the U.S., accompanied by audio of public statements made by Trump about the COVID-19 pandemic:
In the March 25 cease-and-desist letter sent to TV stations, Trump campaign attorney Alex Cannon wrote that the ad takes a remark made by Trump during a Feb. 28 Charleston, South Carolina, campaign rally out of context.
During that event, Trump complained about harsh criticism leveled by Democratic legislators against his administration's COVID-19 response. Accusing the Democrats of politicizing the pandemic, Trump compared their criticisms to his impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives in 2019 (which he had consistently dismissed as a "hoax"), stating, "This is their new hoax." Multiple mainstream news outlets then published articles reporting that Trump had referred to COVID-19 itself as a hoax.
"When the relevant language is taken in context, it is abundantly clear that President Trump was not calling the outbreak a hoax but rather was referring to the Democrat’s falsification of his record in an attempt to discredit his Presidency," Cannon's letter reads. "Moreover, multiple independent fact-checking organizations have debunked the core claim of the PUSA ad: that President Trump referred to the coronavirus outbreak as a hoax."
The letter cites federal laws pertaining to accuracy in broadcasting and threatens TV stations that continuing to run the ad "could put your station’s license in jeopardy."
Among others, the letter cited a March 2 Snopes fact check in which we analyzed the claim that Trump had referred to the virus outbreak itself as a "hoax." We judged it a mixture of true and false, noting that while Trump had used the term in the context of Democrats' efforts to "beat" him (the Russia "hoax," the impeachment "hoax," etc.), he had also created some confusion about what he meant by downplaying the severity of the looming pandemic. During the rally, Trump likened the COVID-19 fatality rate to that of the seasonal flu (which, in fact, is less deadly), and understated the statistics when talking about domestic cases.
We consulted Brendan Fischer, director of the Federal Reform Program at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit organization that works to bolster voter access and reduce the influence of money in politics. Fischer told us that it's not uncommon for such cease-and-desist letters to be sent out during campaign seasons, though they don't often end in actual lawsuits.
"A defamation lawsuit is a pretty high bar and it’s pretty rare a campaign would actually succeed in holding a station liable for statements made in a political ad," Fischer told us. However, "these letters can have a deterrent effect, in some cases a station will take an ad down just so they don’t have to deal with the possibility of litigation."
What's unusual in this case, though, is that Trump has threatened to revoke the broadcasting licenses of television stations whose coverage he doesn't like. "I have to imagine that station owners have at least considered that fact and how to weigh it when considering this," Fischer said.