WSJ reports that My Pillow is pulling all its ads from Fox News because of controversy over an ad that CEO Mike Lindell wanted to run to promote a “cyber symposium” he’s organized to propagate his conspiracy theories about how China hacked the 2020 election. (The Hill also has a follow-on report.)
Meanwhile, in The Atlantic Anne Applebaum has an extensive piece on Lindell with the ominous title “THE MYPILLOW GUY REALLY COULD DESTROY DEMOCRACY.” You’ll want to read it just for its description of the lunch Applebaum had with Lindell. But its significance is its description of the sheer zealotry by which Lindell holds his bizarre beliefs about how China managed to steal the election for Biden.
What has been so astounding to me since these claims surfaced (and the similar one about Venezuela) is how demonstrably false based on the kind of statewide manual recount that Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger ordered in Georgia. It doesn’t matter what software is inside a state’s voting machines once all the ballots have been hand counted and the initial machine count is confirmed. Chris Krebs made this point to Applebaum when she asked him about Lindell’s latest claims:
When I called Chris Krebs, the Trump administration’s director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, he refused even to get into the question of whether Lindell has authentic data, because the whole proposal is absurd. The heavy use of paper ballots, plus all of the postelection audits and recounts, mean that any issues with mechanized voting systems would have been quickly revealed. “It’s all part of the grift,” Krebs told me. “They’re exploiting the aggrieved audience’s confirmation bias and using scary yet unintelligible imagery to keep the Big Lie alive, despite the absence of any legitimate evidence.”
If Lindell and his demonstrably false claims are really as dangerous to American democracy as Applebaum argue, the crucial question is how to counteract this threat. The defamation lawsuits by the voting machine companies against Lindell and others may help. If the judiciary requires Lindell to pay punitive damages for deliberate or reckless falsities that are beyond First Amendment protection under New York Times v. Sullivan, that might have a deterrent effect against the future propagation of similar electoral disinformation.
But should the legal remedy for Lindell’s threat to democracy go beyond private party civil defamation suits? I’ve raised the possibility of invoking 18 U.S. Code § 371 against Trump for his incessant repetition of the demonstrably false claim that he was robbed of a reelection victory. Once AG Barr called it “b__s__”, Trump and his team were on notice that repetition of this false claim was beyond First Amendment protection. Lindell was part of Trump’s team, going to the White House as part of their mutual effort to undo Biden’s victory.
One should at least explore the question whether Lindell warrants prosecution for attempting to “defraud the United States” through his orchestrated disinformation campaign. If this statute can be properly invoked against Russian disinformation aimed at undermining US elections, can it not also be used (although cautiously so) against US citizens aiming to destroy America’s democracy through blatant falsity that is clearly reckless (if not deliberate) under New York Times v. Sullivan? One goal of prosecuting Lindell under this statute might be a plea agreement pursuant to which he publicly and widely renounces his disinformation campaign. Then Lindell would be paying for messages, not that Trump lost, but that it was all “b__s__” all along, just as Barr said.