Donald Trump has failed in over 30 lawsuits that his legal team has filed in an effort to reverse the November election results. Now, the tables have turned, and it’s Trump’s lawyer who’s being sued. On Tuesday, Christopher Krebs, former head of the US Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, sued the president’s campaign and conservative news network Newsmax for defamation after on-air comments from one of Trump’s attournies allegedly lead to death threats against Krebs and his family.
In November, Trump fired Krebs after his team published a statement debunking conspiracy theories about the election that were being spread by the president and his team. The statement identified the most recent election as “the most secure in American history.” Trump called that evaluation “highly inaccurate” when he fired Krebs by tweet a few days later.
The lawsuit filed in Maryland state court on Tuesday concerns a Nov. 30 appearance by Trump’s lawyer Joseph diGenova on Newsmax in which diGenova accused Krebs of being part of a “coup” and called for him to be “drawn and quartered” for treason and “taken out at dawn and shot.” The suit alleges that diGenova’s comments contradicting Krebs’ professional assessment of the election and his calls for violence amounted to personal defamation and were part of an “intentional infliction of emotional distress.”
“I, of course, wish Mr. Krebs no harm,” diGenova told the Washington Post in a statement on Dec. 1. “This was hyperbole in a political discourse.” The message apparently didn’t get out to Trump supporters whom Krebs alleges took to social media to expound on death threats against the former official. The lawsuit claims that these threats prompted his 10-year-old son to ask his parents if his father is “going to get executed.”
But the most interesting aspect of the case is that Krebs is naming Newsmax as a co-defendant in the case. Here’s a snippet from the suit:
Defendants Newsmax, the Campaign, and diGenova have a symbiotic relationship: Defendant Newsmax disseminates and amplifies the Defendant Campaign’s and Defendant diGenova’s attacks on perceived political threats and allegations of election stealing, which pleases viewers, prompts endorsements from President Trump, increases ratings, supports the political goals of the Defendant Campaign, and helps raise more money from duped supporters. In this effort, Defendant diGenova — through his many appearances on Defendant Newsmax — has been an enthusiastic conspirator.
Broadly, Krebs is claiming that Trump is working with Newsmax to defame his enemies in a concerted conspiracy to overturn or cast doubt on the election results. Newsmax boss Christopher Ruddy is famously one of Trump’s golfing buddies and recently gave an interview to the New Yorker in which he expressed how great Trump’s antics are for his personal bottom line.
In this specific incident, Krebs believes that Newsmax made a decision to support diGenova’s message and threats because of the “immediacy” in which the network to cut to archival 60 Minutes footage of an interview with Krebs as soon as diGenova brought up his name. Here’s how the suit frames that:
The speed with which Defendant Newsmax inserted the video into the newscast suggests one of two things, both implicating Defendant Newsmax: either (1) the network coordinated with Defendant diGenova in advance about his reference to Plaintiff, such that it had the video at the ready; or (2) the show was pre-recorded and, rather than cutting Defendant diGenova’s threatening words when it had the opportunity to do so, Defendant Newsmax instead chose to double down on the provocation by amplifying it with the 60 Minutes video clip.
It’s uncommon to see this kind of lawsuit, and defamation can be difficult to prove. But diGenova’s specific charge of “treason” could help knock down the hyperbole claims on the defamation front and the call for him to be shot “at dawn” could lend credence to the notion that diGenova’s call to violence was an imminent threat. Still, the First Amendment is very flexible and forgiving.
More than anything, it will be interesting to see if the courts allow discovery to go through communications between the Trump team and Newsmax to prove any message coordination or animosity.
Krebs is seeking a jury trial. And if the case is decided in his favour, he’d like all parties to provide monetary damages and equitable relief, and he wants Newsmax to remove the offending clip.
It’s an unusual and tricky case, but one thing is certain: It will be handled more professionally than anything the Trump Campaign has thrown at the courts.