This week, right-wing hoaxster James O’Keefe launched the latest of his series of secretly recorded videos, which purport to prove various conservative conspiracy theories but fail. The new version involves a CNN contractor recording employees grumbling about various complaints about the network, none of which establish the plot O’Keefe set out to prove, and some of which suggest the opposite (an employee complains that CNN covers Trump rallies but not Biden ones, which are too boring).
Even some of the conservative movement’s dimmest stars came away unimpressed. The project nonetheless seems to have left an impression on Donald Trump, a devoted follower and purveyor of nearly all the right’s conspiracy theories, a fanatical devotee of cable news, and, incidentally, the president of the United States. Trump has directed his lawyer to threaten a lawsuit against CNN on the basis of O’Keefe’s flimsy video.
The letter claims that O’Keefe has personally disproven CNN’s claim to be a news network dedicated to reporting facts. “In the Footage, your employees
appear to state that CNN attempts to make its reporting appear neutral and unbiased, when in fact its reporting is far from neutral and highly biased against the President.” The letter then moves on to its true complaint, stating (without any evidence whatsoever), “Never in the history of this country has a President been the subject of such a sustained barrage of unfair, unfounded, unethical and unlawful attacks by so-called ‘mainstream’ news, as the current situation.”
Continuing from this extremely shaky factual foundation, Trump’s letter proceeds to a ludicrous legal argument: CNN has violated the Lanham Act, which controls truth in advertising. Therefore, by claiming to be a real news network while subjecting Trump to hours of critical coverage, it has misrepresented itself. For some reason Trump claims he is personally entitled to financial compensation from CNN as a result. Trump plans to “seek compensatory damages, treble damages, punitive damages, injunctive relief, reimbursement of legal costs, and all other available legal and equitable remedies.”
Trump’s business career shows a long history of threatening absurd lawsuits for the purpose of intimidation. At times he has succeeded in bullying his targets into backing down. Usually, he fails to follow through on his threats. Even if Trump does follow through and file a lawsuit, it would be laughed out of any court — even one stocked entirely with Trump appointees.
However, Trump’s impulse here should not be merely dismissed as another ineffectual tantrum from the toddler president. The effort to intimidate news organizations he cannot control directly is a persistent theme of his presidency. Trump has used his powers as president to punish independent media when the opportunity has presented itself. And as the cordon of professionals working to restrain him has disintegrated, the space between Trump’s impulses and his official acts has collapsed. Just last week, the president formally endorsed, via a quasi-legal letter, his even more absurd position that Congress cannot legally impeach him.
Trump’s authoritarian impulses frequently appear cartoonish because they are executed so clumsily, and based not in any fascist theory of government but in his literal failure to grasp separation of powers, popular sovereignty, and the rule of law as concepts. But to be an authoritarian clown is still to be an authoritarian.
Here’s the full letter: