The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pro-Trump conspiracy theorists increasingly face legal consequences

Whether it will change things for a movement built on misinformation is another matter entirely.

Far-right media conspiracy theorist Alex Jones talks to members of the media and the pro-Trump protesters after the 2020 election in Arizona on Nov. 5 (Caitlin O’Hara for The Washington Post) (Caitlin O'Hara/FTWP)
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Misinformation has always been a problem in politics. What has changed over the last six years or so is how much one movement in particular — the one led by former president Donald Trump — has embraced it as an organizing principle. Trump and his allies have also aligned with the kind of extremist purveyors of conspiracy theories who were once given the cold shoulder in polite society.

Increasingly, though, a bit of a reckoning is taking place. Trump allies spouting wild, baseless theories and otherwise taking our political discourse down misinformation rabbit holes are confronting consequences in court or otherwise facing bona fide legal penalties for their actions.

The question, as ever, is whether it will change anything — whether those penalties will serve as the deterrent they are supposed to be.

Right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones is the latest to be ordered to pay up by a court. As The Post’s Timothy Bella reported Friday, a judge ruled Jones was liable for all damages in lawsuits over his claims that the massacre of 20 schoolchildren and six others at Sandy Hook Elementary was a “false flag” and a “giant hoax.” The conspiracy theory has led to the harassment of the victims’ families.

On March 29, 2019, attorneys released more than three hours of Alex Jones’s deposition for the defamation suits against him. (Video: Kaster, Lynch, Farrar & Ball, LLP)

Jones and his Infowars website’s parent company were found to have “intentionally disobeyed” the court by not turning over documents in such lawsuits. The ruling is what’s known as a “death penalty sanction,” which is highly unusual. The penalty is expected to be determined either by a hearing or a jury.

Also waiting their official penalty (and potential penalties, plural) right now are two other pro-Trump right-wing provocateurs, Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman. The Federal Communications Commission a month ago recommended a record $5.1 million fine for robocalls the two made seeking to mislead voters in heavily Democratic Detroit about the supposed dangers of voting by mail. The two have also been charged with four felonies in Michigan, and have been sued by New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) over similar allegations.

Penalties have also increased in recent months for pro-Trump lawyers who launched ill-fated and specious claims about voter fraud in the 2020 election.

Two pro-Trump lawyers in Colorado were ordered to pay the court costs for those they sued, with a judge labeling their case “the stuff of which violent insurrections are made.”

Sidney Powell, Lin Wood and other lawyers were also ordered to pay the other side’s legal fees by a federal judge in Michigan — the requested amount is $204,000 — and could face other disciplinary measures too. The judge said the lawsuit they brought never bothered with the facts but instead “was about undermining the people’s faith in our democracy and debasing the judicial process to do so.”

Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani had his law license suspended in New York and by the D.C. Court of Appeals for making similar allegations.

Giuliani and Powell have also been joined by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, Fox News and other conservative outlets in being sued over claims that voting machines changed votes in 2020 — lawsuits that could be the most significant of all if successful, given how many pushed them and the ability to define damages.

Dominion Voting Systems on Feb. 22 filed a defamation lawsuit against MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell for promoting baseless theories about its voting machines. (Video: Reuters)

If anything, that’s where these lawsuits and potential penalties have proven to have the biggest deterrent effect. Repeatedly, news outlets that pushed or provided a forum for the voting-machine claims have either backed off them, sought to insulate themselves from the actual claims, or tried to prevent guests from raising them — with often awkward results. Even Powell has been forced to concede in court that “reasonable” people wouldn’t accept her claims to having verifiable proof as fact.

While that last one is notable, though, Powell’s attempt to pull back seems to extend only as far as the issue of her immediate legal jeopardy: voting machines. If you’re on social media, you need not look far to find her spouting yet more bizarre theories about how the 2020 election was stolen — including a couple just this week.

Similarly, Giuliani has shown few signs of slowing his roll on voter fraud allegations — despite his personal financial and legal problems. Jones too has continued to flood the Internet with his very distinct brand of entertainment even as the Sandy Hook lawsuits have dragged out over the years.

The legal fees that the likes of Powell et al have been or will be forced to fork over will probably be relative drops in the bucket for them. Nor will these folks be all that concerned about the rebukes by judges, whose harsh words will only be viewed by voter-fraud truthers as proof of the deep-state conspiracy. It also fits in neatly with allegations of “cancel culture,” in which the big problem is supposedly not the falsehoods but the accountability it engenders.

And even as Powell has yet to make good on any of her promises and has effectively admitted in court to being a fabulist, there’s still a media ecosystem and a constituency eager to lap up whatever she has to say. You might think at some point it would be sore about being sold a bill of goods; you’d be wrong.

It’s fair to ask in all of this just how much some of these reflect upon the broader movement. Wohl and Burkman, in particular, have been operating on the fringes of the GOP for a long time. And Jones was, too. But starting during the 2016 campaign — long after he launched his Sandy Hook conspiracy theories — he was legitimized by Trump, who appeared on his show as a candidate and told him, “Your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down.”

A Frontline documentary last year showed that was indeed the case, with Trump often echoing Jones’s conspiracy theories in detail. Similarly, the lawyers lodging wild claims in court weren’t always working for Trump, but they were promoting the things he was saying and the things many Trump supporters internalized.

As recently as last month, J.D. Vance, a candidate for the GOP Senate nomination in Ohio who has tried hard to appeal to the Trumpian base he once documented in “Hillbilly Elegy,” favorably compared Jones’s credibility with that of MSNBC host Rachel Maddow.

Vance later said he was “trolling” by making the comparison and that Jones “says some crazy stuff but he also says things that are occasionally interesting.” It was certainly a telling moment for a candidate who is appealing to a certain base to play up the reliability of such a man — a man whose conspiracy theories about slaughtered children would soon hit his own pocketbook, because he declined to explain them.