A Denver courtroom provided the setting for a war of words this week, Trump campaign figures and their conservative media allies on one side and a key target of unfounded claims of fraud in the 2020 election on the other.
The defamation lawsuit provides a window into the Trump campaign and the origins of claims central to the effort by die-hard Trump supporters to cast doubt on the 2020 election.
The highest profile appearance came from Sidney Powell, the former lawyer for President Donald Trump best known for her promise to “release the Kraken” with regard to election fraud allegations. A federal judge in Michigan sanctioned Powell in August for “a historic and profound abuse of the judicial process” related to her legal efforts to push baseless election fraud claims in court. Her attorney objected Wednesday when lawyers for the plaintiff, Eric Coomer of Dominion Voting Systems, mentioned the sanctions in the Denver hearing, but the judge allowed it.
Powell had wanted to argue her own case in place of her lawyers, though lawyers for Coomer objected, arguing that it would improperly mix testimony with legal arguments.
When it was time for Powell’s legal team to speak Wednesday, her attorney, Republican former state Rep. Barry Arrington, was down the street representing a gun rights group in an appeals case against the state, ultimately pushing Powell’s arguments to Thursday.
Defendants in the defamation case — including Rudy Giuliani, Powell, One American News Network and the Trump campaign itself — jockeyed to persuade Judge Marie Avery Moses to dismiss the lawsuit under Colorado’s anti-SLAPP law, which is meant to protect journalists and members of the public from being targeted by frivolous, retaliatory lawsuits aimed at stifling free speech.
The focus of the case is on claims made by conservative Colorado-based media figure Joe Oltmann that he infiltrated an antifa conference call in which Coomer allegedly stated that he had made sure Trump wouldn’t win the election. Conservative media outlets including One American News Network publicized Oltmann’s claims, which Trump-associated lawyers like Rudy Giuliani and Powell pushed in post-election news conferences to sow doubt about the integrity of the election.
Coomer has said the claims are all lies, with one of his lawyers, Zach Bowman, describing Oltmann’s claims as “a fraud narrative looking for a target — it was a calculated falsehood, it was not a mistake.”
His lawyers played video clips of testimony by Oltmann, Giuliani, Powell and others. They also reviewed Oltmann’s handwritten notes that he claims to have written during the antifa conference call as well as an internal Trump campaign memo described as a “smoking bullet.”
Meanwhile, the man whose claims sparked the firestorm is defying a “civility order” from the judge by attacking her and others on social media.
Oltmann came into the courtroom about 40 minutes after the hearing started on Wednesday, and after the judge had reviewed the order with everyone in the courtroom.
At the end of the day Wednesday, one of Coomer’s attorneys alerted the judge to disparaging posts Oltmann allegedly made about her on Telegram, a social media website popular with conservatives. The Colorado Sun found Telegram posts from Oltmann accusing the judge of being “so obviously compromised and colluding with the radical agenda” and calling Coomer and his lawyers liars.
Coomer’s lawyers told Moses they wanted the posts to stop: “This endangers us, our client and the court.”
Moses said she would not let anyone derail the proceedings, insisting that safety is the court’s top priority.
The courtroom was guarded by a heavy security detail. At least three sheriff’s deputies were inside throughout the proceedings, one (or two) posted at the door and two more standing in the back corners, watching over the room and ready to enforce the judge’s orders on decorum. Even more stood outside the courtroom.
Moses advised Oltmann’s lawyers to suggest that he leave his phone outside the courtroom on Thursday.
Oltmann vowed Wednesday night to defy the judge’s order, which he likened to “Nazi Germany” and even threatened to sue her.
“I’m not going to stop using my 1st Amendment right to speak truth,” he wrote on Telegram. “I am not in violation of any order because I had no knowledge of the order and no one gave me an order. Now that I know, I will respect the unconstitutional order and make sure I post it for everyone to see while I sue the judge for violating my rights.”
Oltmann’s defiance of the court order could open him up to contempt proceedings. He’s already defied court orders in the case. In August, the judge ordering him to pay costs and legal fees for the plaintiffs when he didn’t show up to an in-person deposition. This month, the judge barred his lawyers from disputing certain evidence after he refused to identify the alleged person who got him access to Coomer’s private Facebook posts.
Coomer sat quietly on the far right side of the courtroom surrounded by his legal team, occasionally taking notes and fidgeting with his pen.
For her part, Powell spent much of her time in court looking at her phone, even as Coomer’s lawyers played a video of her deposition.
One of the key questions before the judge is whether Coomer is considered a public figure by virtue of his position as the director of product strategy and security for Dominion during the election, which would mean Coomer would ultimately have to prove that the defendants either knew the statements were false or acted with reckless disregard for the truth. If not, Coomer would ultimately have to show only that the defendants were negligent.
Another question is whether the statements are about a matter of public concern. Defendants pointed to Coomer’s role at Dominion combined with anti-Trump Facebook posts he made as being a matter of public concern in the context of election integrity, while Coomer’s lawyers argued that defamatory statements cannot themselves be the origin of a public concern.
Ultimately, Moses could split her decision, dismissing the lawsuit for some of the defendants, like Giuliani or Powell, while allowing the lawsuit to move forward against others, like Oltmann.
Oltmann’s attorney, Ingrid DeFranco said Coomer’s team painted her client as a man with “an obsession, perhaps a delusional obsession.” If so, she argued, then Oltmann “could not possibly have entertained grave doubts about the truth,” and therefore can’t be liable for defamation.
On the other side, Bowman, noted the damage that disinformation has done to the country over the past two years, and in the case of Oltmann’s claims, the disinformation “continues to damage Dr. Coomer and continues to threaten our democracy.”
Each side has 60 days to file their legal conclusions and position on the facts of the case, which the judge will use to decide whether to dismiss the case or let it go forward.