In an era of brazen political lies, Mr. Mugica has emerged as an unlikely figure with the power to put the genie back in the bottle. Last week, his lawyer sent scathing letters to the Fox News Channel, Newsmax and OAN demanding that they immediately, forcefully clear his company’s name — and that they retain documents for a planned defamation lawsuit. He has, legal experts say, an unusually strong case. And his new lawyer is J. Erik Connolly, who not coincidentally won the largest settlement in the history of American media defamation in 2017, at least $177 million, for a beef producer whose “lean finely textured beef” was described by ABC News as “pink slime.”
Now, Mr. Connolly’s target is a kind of red slime, the stream of preposterous lies coming from the White House and Republican officials around the country.
“We’ve gotten to this point where there’s so much falsity that is being spread on certain platforms, and you may need an occasion where you send a message, and that’s what punitive damages can do in a case like this,” Mr. Connolly said.
Mr. Mugica isn’t the only potential plaintiff. Dominion Voting Systems has hired another high-powered libel lawyer, Tom Clare, who has threatened legal action against Ms. Powell and the Trump campaign. Mr. Clare said in an emailed statement that “we are moving forward on the basis that she will not retract those false statements and that it will be necessary for Dominion to take aggressive legal action, both against Ms. Powell and the many others who have enabled and amplified her campaign of defamation by spreading damaging falsehoods about Dominion.”
These are legal threats any company, even a giant like Fox Corporation, would take seriously. And they could be fatal to the dream of a new “Trump TV,” a giant new media company in the president’s image, and perhaps contributing to his bottom line. Newsmax and OAN would each like to become that, and are both burning money to steal ratings from Fox, executives from both companies have acknowledged. They will need to raise significantly more money, or to sell quickly to investors, to build a Fox-style multibillion-dollar empire. But outstanding litigation with the potential of an enormous verdict will be enough to scare away most buyers.
And so Newsmax and OAN appear likely to face the same fate as so many of President Trump’s sycophants, who have watched him lie with impunity and imitated him — only to find that he’s the only one who can really get away with it. Mr. Trump benefits from presidential immunity, but also he has an experienced fabulist’s sense of where the legal red lines are, something his allies often lack. Three of his close aides were convicted of lying, and Michael Cohen served more than a year in prison. (Trump pardoned Michael Flynn and commuted the sentence of Roger Stone.)
OAN and Newsmax have been avidly hyping Mr. Trump’s bogus election claims. OAN has even been trying to get to Newsmax’s right, by continuing to reject Joe Biden’s status as president-elect. But their own roles in propagating that lie could destroy their businesses if Mr. Mugica sues.