WASHINGTON – A federal judge has granted a leading Democratic super PAC's request to join a court fight between President Donald Trump and a Wisconsin TV station, which his campaign sued after it aired a political ad criticizing his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
That sets up a notable legal battle between Trump’s financially flush Republican reelection campaign and Priorities USA, one of the biggest spending groups in Democratic politics, which paid to air the ad.
The Trump campaign's flare for theatrics were on display Wednesday. Although Priorities USA actively sought to intervene in the case, the Trump campaign instead claimed credit for being the one who sued Priorities.
“Donald J. Trump for President, Inc. today filed a complaint against Priorities USA (PUSA) for defamation in their sponsoring of an ad that includes false and libelous statements against the President,” the campaign said in a news release that contained several misrepresentations.
Trump initially sued WJFW-TV, an NBC affiliate in northern Wisconsin, in state court. The case was transferred to federal court at the station's request in April, and a request by Priorities USA to join as a co-defendant was granted on Tuesday, court records show.
The lawsuit that Trump's campaign said it filed on Wednesday against Priorities was actually filed last week. And it was recognized instead by the court as a “supplement” to their prior lawsuit against the TV station — not a new complaint, records show.
The lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages in an amount to be determined at trial.
The ad in question pieces together audio clips of the president downplaying the threat posed by the COVID-19 virus, while a chart that is splashed across the screen gradually begins to shoot upward as cases of the virus skyrocketed across the nation.
“The coronavirus ... this is their new hoax,” Trump is heard in the ad’s opening, with two clips that are different recordings.
Trump’s campaign alleges that the ad is “defamatory” because it splices together the clips in a way that makes it appear as though the president said the virus itself was a “hoax.” Trump’s campaign argues that the president did not call the virus a “hoax" but was instead referring to Democrats politicizing his handling of it.
Trump spent the first months of 2020 downplaying the pandemic, accusing Democrats and the media of hysteria as he pointed to low numbers of confirmed cases and deaths from the virus. Trump’s full “hoax” quote at a Feb. 28 rally in South Carolina, however, came in the context of Democrats’ criticism of his response.
Priorities USA has spent much of Trump’s term researching voters’ views in key battleground states, including Wisconsin, that delivered Trump his Electoral College victory in 2016, and the super political action committee has committed to an extended television and digital advertising campaign to potential swing voters in those states.
“Priorities USA Action successfully intervened as a defendant in the lawsuit filed by the Trump campaign against a small Wisconsin TV station in a desperate attempt to prevent Americans from hearing the truth about Trump’s failed response to the coronavirus pandemic,” Priorities USA chair Guy Cecil said in a statement Tuesday. "We stand by the facts in our ad that uses Trump’s own words.”