@DevinCow Is Hilarious. Nunes’s Lawsuits Against Twitter and Others Are Not.

April 10, 2019
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Devin Nunes. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The last time we heard from Devin Nunes, he was filing a $250 million lawsuit against a political consultant, Twitter, and two parody Twitter accounts named “Devin Nunes’ cow” and “Devin Nunes’ Mom.”

The suit accused the parody accounts of saying mean things about him. The Washington Post quoted language directly from his lawsuit:

“Devin Nunes’ cow has made, published and republished hundreds of false and defamatory statements of and concerning Nunes, including the following: Nunes is a ‘treasonous cowpoke.’”

“’Devin’s boots are full of manure. He’s udder-ly worthless and its pasture time to move him to prison.’ ”

“In her endless barrage of tweets, Devin Nunes’ Mom maliciously attacked every aspect of Nunes’ character, honesty, integrity, ethics and fitness to perform his duties as a United States Congressman.”

@DevinNunesMom “falsely stated that Nunes was unfit to run the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.”

@DevinNunesMom “falsely stated that Nunes was ‘voted ‘Most Likely to Commit Treason’ in high school.’ ”

Hilarity inevitably ensued, with @DevinCow quickly garnering more followers than the sensitive California congressman himself.  (The original @DevinNunesMom account was suspended but now “Devin Nunes’ Alt-Mom is up and running.) The Post’s Aaron Blake quipped: “It’s almost as if the accounts were created to sound ridiculous in a lawsuit and make it seem frivolous.”

Nunes, who until quite recently chaired the House Intelligence Committee, was apparently undeterred by the ridicule and has now filed a new lawsuit – this time for $150 million – against the Fresno Bee and its parent company, McClatchy.

Nunes rolled out his new lawsuit on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show:

“They need to retract everything they did against me, but they also need to come clean with the American people,” Nunes told Fox News’ “Hannity” Monday night. “Retract all of their fake news stories. This is part of the broader clean-up. Remember, a few weeks ago, I filed against Twitter — they’re censoring conservatives. McClatchy is one of the worst offenders of this. But we’re coming after the rest of them. I think people are beginning to wake up now, I’m serious — I’m coming to clean up the mess.”

Nunes’s latest suit focuses on a May 2018 article published by the Fresno Bee headlined, “A yacht, cocaine, prostitutes: Winery partly owned by Nunes sued after fundraiser event.” The article reports on a lawsuit by a former female employee involving a 2015 charity cruise involving “25 of the Napa Valley-based [Alpha Omega Winery]’s top investors, all men — [who] were openly using what appeared to be cocaine and ‘drawing straws’ for which sex worker to hire.” Nunes is an investor in the winery, but there was no allegation that he either attended or knew about the party.

How serious is Nunes’ latest legal action? In his lawsuit, Nunes’ specifically cited a tweet by the reporter, McKenzie Kay, who had written the article. 

But Nunes’ complaint suggested that neither the congressman nor his attorneys understood how Twitter actually worked.

In his complaint, Nunes said that the reporter “chose to emphasize the words ‘woman,’ ‘Devin’ and ‘cocaine’ in her tweet to defame him and “injure his reputation.” However, there is no emphasis of particular words in the original tweet, and it appears a screenshot of the tweet that contains bolded words stems from how Twitter’s search function operates.

By the next day, the hashtag #YachtCocaineProstitutes was trending on Twitter. Nunes’ cow and his alt-mom also continue to add followers at a rapid clip.

If you want to see just precisely how embarrassing the suit is, check out this extensive thread parsing its text:

This would normally all be quite embarrassing for any member of Congress, but Nunes seems to relish his new role as an ambulance-chasing nuisance suit troll. Perhaps he sees it as building on his success peddling conspiracy theories about the deep state and plots against President Trump. Or maybe he’s just a thin-skinned cry baby.

But there may also a deeper logic at work here. Bear with me here.

The frivolity of Nunes’ suits shouldn’t distract from the fact that they pose a legitimate nuisance to their targets. As New York Magazine notes, his new suit “feels like a page out of the Peter Thiel/Gawker playbook: a suit intended not to be won, but to tie up a critical media outlet in red tape.”

The tactic has become so widespread that it has a name: a “strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP),” defined as a “a lawsuit that is intended to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition.”

The goal of plaintiffs in these cases is not necessarily to actually win the lawsuit, but to drag their critics to court and bury them under a pile of attorney’s fees and embarrassment until they cry “uncle!” and agree to be quiet, anti-SLAPP law advocates said.

And what better way to ingratiate himself with a president with a penchant for litigation and a deep antipathy for the “fake news media”? Trump has denounced the current state of libel law as “a sham and a disgrace,” and complained that it does not “represent American values or American fairness.” He has repeatedly suggested that he wanted to “open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.”

Nunes, who has repeatedly demonstrated his eagerness to prove his servility to Trump, has evidently picked up the signals. It is not enough to simply rail against the “enemy of the people,” they need to be sued and the bigger the damages and the more absurd the claims the better.

As I wrote here last month, conservatives will be tempted to applaud legal attacks on the media. But they should be very careful what they wish for. As Thomas Hobbes might have put it in one of his darker moods: Karma can be a very unpleasant bitch.

Lawsuits are unlikely to put the New York Times or CNN out of business, but can the same be said of outlets like Breitbart, the Drudge Report, or the Daily Caller?

Billionaire litigants could make life miserable for Jim Acosta or Rachel Maddow; but billionaires on the left could also bankroll devastating legal attacks on talk radio hosts and right-leaning bloggers. The schadenfreude on both sides would be exceptional, but the price tag for democratic debate would be catastrophic.

In the meantime, though, we have Devin Nunes and his cow to entertain us.

Charles Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.