Earlier this week, Forbes revisited the tale of the notorious right-wing internet troll Charles C. Johnson and his $55 million defamation lawsuit against Gawker Media. The lawsuit, which concerns a series of stories Gawker and Deadspin published in late 2014, was dismissed in Missouri earlier this year; a similar complaint has languished in California with no action for several months (Gawker Media expects that it will be dismissed as well). What makes Johnson’s litigation particularly noteworthy, however, is the circumstantial evidence surrounding it. According to Forbes, some of this evidence suggests that Johnson had knowledge of Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel’s secret, decade-long legal attack on Gawker prior to its exposure last month.
The magazine cites three pieces of evidence:
1. A Facebook post from October 2015 in which Johnson claims that “Gawker will cease to exist in a year’s time,” an assertion he presented as based on some kind of insider knowledge:
2. Johnson’s alleged communication with the law firm of Hulk Hogan’s litigation attorney, Charles Harder (who has also served as Thiel’s legal proxy):
Sometime after filing his initial complaint against Gawker in Missouri last year, Johnson contacted Hulk Hogan’s Los Angeles-based law firm, according to a source familiar with the situation. That person said that Johnson had a phone conversation with lawyers at Harder Mirell & Abrams–the law firm that was paid by Thiel to represent Hogan–and that the two parties exchanged notes.
(Harder didn’t confirm or deny this allegation, but Johnson denied it to Forbes.)
3. Johnson’s alleged negotiations with a different, unnamed law firm in Los Angeles, in which he apparently characterized his lawsuit against Gawker as part of a broader campaign against Gawker Media:
Representatives for Johnson have also talked to other LA-area law firms, another source told FORBES, and his case was pitched to at least one of them as part of a wider litigious plan against Gawker.
Gawker was able to independently confirm that Johnson approached a Los Angeles law firm about representing him against Gawker shortly after a Florida jury awarded Hulk Hogan $110 million in damages (which would later rise to $140.1 million) in March of this year, and that he characterized his lawsuit as part of a broader legal campaign. According to a source with knowledge of Johnson’s approach, he was apparently cryptic about what this campaign entailed.
Johnson is, of course, a well-known troll, so it wouldn’t be surprising if he had pitched his lawsuit against Gawker as something other than what it really was—that is, a legally dubious and poorly prepared claim. Furthermore, Johnson has denied any ties between either Charles Harder or Peter Thiel, and told Forbes that he has paid his own lawyer fees.
In a separate statement to Gawker, Johnson wrote, “Forbes got a lot wrong and made up some stuff. Do you think I should sue them?” He directed further questions to his Missouri-based attorney, Jonathon Burns.
The evidence cited by Forbes does not prove that Johnson is being bankrolled by Thiel (either via Harder or some other party). But it does raise questions about whether Johnson and Thiel, or Thiel’s representatives, have communicated about the latter’s vendetta against Gawker. Indeed, according to Johnson’s former account on Twitter—which took the extraordinary step of permanently banning him from the platform in May 2015—he’s been a Thiel fanboy for a number of years:
- “Peter Thiel is probably the second smartest man in America.”
- “When I finish with the media I’ll move on to higher education. Peter Thiel being shouted down was a disgrace.”
- “I love Peter Thiel. Monopolies are good. You shouldn’t go to college. Let’s create new countries, build rocket ships, & live forever!”
In a tweet dated March 12, 2015, Johnson claimed that, as a student at Claremont McKenna College, he attended a dinner where he talked with Thiel, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, and Claremont professor Mark Blitz:
In a subsequent tweet, Johnson revealed the topic of discussion:
Charles Johnson refused to elaborate on the details of the dinner in response to a request for comment from Gawker. Bill Kristol, however, denied that the dinner took place. “I’ve never had a dinner with Peter Thiel and Charles Johnson,” he told Gawker. “I don’t remember anything like that.” Referring to Johnson, he added, “He’s the one who attended Claremont as an undergraduate, right? I may have met him then. But then he went crazy. I haven’t met with him since then.” (The other two attendees, Mark Blitz and Peter Thiel, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.)
Considering the evidence at hand—Johnson’s boasts on social media, the Forbes report about his contact with Thiel’s proxy attorney, his apparent contact with Thiel in college, and both men’s shared political ideologies—it’s not hard to imagine that Thiel and Johnson are at the very least familiar with one another. Indeed, Thiel has a history of funding attention-seeking young conservatives who use the tools of journalism to achieve notoriety and political ends—he provided right-wing provocateur James O’Keefe with a $10,000 contribution in 2009.
If the men do have such a relationship, Thiel might not want anyone to know about it—especially after his New York Times interview, in which he posed as a guardian of ethical journalism, a concept with which Johnson has often struggled. “Much of what he publishes is either wrong or tasteless,” the Times reported in 2014, referring to his involvement in inaccurate stories about U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, whom Johnson baselessly accused of paying for prostitutes, and Times reporter David Kirkpatrick, whom Johnson accused of posing nude for Playgirl after misinterpreting a satirical article published when Kirkpatrick attended Princeton. U.S. News & World Report described Johnson’s attempts to out an alleged rape victim as “appalling” and argued that his reporting “contributes heavily to the reluctance on the part of sexual assault victims to come forward.”
An alliance with Johnson would also undercut Thiel’s purported disdain for outing public figures. At Claremont McKenna, Mother Jones has reported, he retaliated against one of his classmates by disclosing the classmate’s homosexuality in the comments section of the student newspaper’s website. He has claimed on Twitter that Barack Obama is secretly attracted to men and that America’s culture of political correctness punishes those who question the President’s public image as a straight, married man of two children.