Kari Lake and the Trump movement’s billion-dollar defamation problem

For the second time in eight months, a top Donald Trump ally has, extraordinarily, declined to try to prove they didn’t defame an election worker. Arizona Senate candidate Kari Lake (R) has joined former Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani in that distinction.

The news comes even as Trump owes more than $86 million after losing a pair of defamation cases against a woman, E. Jean Carroll, whom he has arguably continued to defame.

Throw in the $787.5 million Fox News agreed to pay a voting machine company over bogus theories it aired bolstering Trump’s stolen-election claims and the $148 million judgment against Giuliani, and the combined bill is north of $1 billion — and potentially growing, thanks to Lake’s capitulation and other lawsuits.

The Trump political movement has long had a truth problem. That has now manifested itself as a very expensive defamation problem.

As well as anything, these defamation cases lay bare just how careless and demagogic the MAGA movement has become.

The latest big news is Lake’s declining to defend her statements about Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer (R), whom she repeatedly accused of deliberately sabotaging her narrow 2022 loss for Arizona governor. (Courts have repeatedly rejected that argument and upheld Lake’s defeat.)

As The Washington Post’s Yvonne Wingett Sanchez and Maegan Vazquez reported Tuesday, lawyers for Lake, her campaign and an affiliated nonprofit group have asked the judge to move directly to the damages phase — determining whether Lake owes Richer money, and if so, how much.

The situation is strikingly reminiscent of Giuliani’s defamation case eight months ago. Facing an arduous and expensive discovery process — during which Giuliani’s legal team had to produce evidence — Giuliani ultimately simply granted that his statements about Georgia election workers Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss were false and even defamatory, before the huge judgment against him.

Both Lake and Giuliani tried to put a good face on their capitulations. Lake has cited the cost of pressing forward and insisted that she’s not giving up. She also gamely insisted that defending her statements “would only serve to legitimize this perversion of our legal system.”

But it’s worth emphasizing that moving directly to the damages phase spares a defendant a fraught discovery process, in which their claims and their private deliberations could be put under a microscope.

Fox’s historic settlement with Dominion Voting Systems came only after a robust discovery phase that proved hugely embarrassing for the network. The evidence showed that Fox executives and hosts understood the claims they chose to air were bogus but that they pressed forward anyway. Repeatedly, they cited a desire to toe Trump’s line and avoid alienating his supporters. (You can see the fruits of that discovery process here.)

The judge in Giuliani’s case suggested that Giuliani was deliberately shirking his discovery obligations to insulate himself from other civil and criminal cases. Giuliani has also been indicted alongside Trump in the Fulton County, Ga., election-subversion case.

Lake’s move is a far cry from her previous commentary. In January, she noted that “discovery goes both ways,” adding: “I TRULY look forward to that. I stand by everything I’ve said. I’ve always been truthful when I’ve talked about elections.”

(There could still be a discovery phase in the Lake lawsuit; it’s not clear whether the judge will grant Lake’s motion. And Richer’s legal team could push for the process in service of making a point and potentially increasing the damages.)

Lake’s January comment is a telling one. Repeatedly, Trump-aligned defendants in these cases have hailed the discovery process as one in which they would not only be vindicated but could prove the veracity of their stolen-election claims. If Lake truly believes Richer rigged the election against her, what better way than to unearth his private communications? At least one high-profile Trump backer is criticizing Lake for giving up in that quest.

But as with the many voter-fraud lawsuits that have failed, it’s become clear that election-deniers simply don’t have the evidence to back up their claims. And at worst, the process involves risks demonstrating how craven they were in spreading these claims in the first place.

What’s also important to note here is that, while these cases involve only a handful of stolen-election claims, they are among the signature ones. The idea that Georgia election workers planted thousands of ballots was everywhere, because it was an easily consumable example of purported mass voter fraud. So, too, the theories that voting machines rigged the election. Lake’s claims about Maricopa County in many ways kept the election-denial movement going in 2022, after the GOP began shying away from this kind of rhetoric in the aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

These cases are merely those in which the claims were specific enough to provide grounds for a defamation lawsuit — where an individual party suffered an injury. Stolen-election claims have been everywhere, but they’ve rarely led a specific entity to be targeted by Trump backers. When they have, the record for election-deniers is ugly.

Politics has always involved stretching the truth about your political opponents. But it tends to be done with a deft touch and plausible deniability. What we have today is a movement, led by the President of 30,000 False and Misleading Claims, that is increasingly shameless about spreading the thinnest and most debunkable of claims about supposedly nefarious opponents.

The sum total: Serial defamers could figure heavily into the Republican Party’s hopes of retaking both the presidency and the Senate.

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