While testifying in U.S. District Court Tuesday, Elon Musk had to square off against one of his worst enemies: bureaucracy.
The Tesla CEO was subject to the sloth of the justice system as he answered painstaking questions from the prosecution and waited through legal challenges and process scuffles while testifying in a defamation lawsuit against him.
Musk is accused of defaming Vernon Unsworth, a member of the team that rescued the Thai boys’ soccer team after they became trapped in a cave in July 2018.
After Unsworth insulted Musk’s efforts to help while speaking on CNN, Musk tweeted that Unsworth was a “pedo guy,” ostensibly accusing Unsworth of being a pedophile.
The result: a defamation lawsuit truly fit for our times.
Musk took the stand at around 1:20 in the afternoon. The prosecution’s lead counsel, a steely white-haired gentleman with a heavy Southern drawl, began taking Musk to task — very, very slowly.
The prosecution’s questioning didn’t end until 4:45 p.m. Musk’s attorneys questioned him for an additional 15 minutes, promising — hooray — to resume the next day. All in, Musk was on the stand with a few breaks for over 3.5 hours.
Musk remained neutral over most of the testimony. But as time wore on, everyone — Musk, his attorneys, the jury, the gallery, the judge — began to crack. On more than one occasion, the process of admitting evidence sputtered when the judge failed to grasp the mechanics of Twitter and email threads. After multiple technical spars between the legal teams and the judge interrupted the already lethargic rhythm of questioning, Musk couldn’t help but stretch, look around, and even roll his eyes in visible frustration at one of the later delays.
Testifying in front of a jury for that long would be hard for anyone. But Elon Musk is not just anyone, and it was striking to watch him have to sit still and answer questions about his emails and tweets for over 3.5 hours. In addition to being a CEO who generally says and does what he wants, this is a man who finds the bureaucracy of government processes maddeningly contemptible, to say the least; who so hates wasting time commuting that he decided to take on “solving traffic” by starting a whole dang drilling company.
But Musk was not alone in his frustration. Even the judge, himself testudinal in appearance and demeanor, happened to agree.
“We’ve had a number of sidebars,” the judge said, denying a request to approach the bench. “We just have to keep going.”
“I assume he did not literally mean to sodomize me with a submarine … Just as I didn’t literally mean he was a pedophile, he didn’t mean he wanted to shove a sub up my ass.”
The pace and multiple delays indicated a tense courtroom environment in which the two sides attempted to tell very different stories about an outlandish chain of events.
Things got off to a bumpy start when Musk only begrudgingly conceded that he was a person with “influence.” That skeptical, defensive, and sometimes bemused attitude continued as the prosecution pressed him on his knowledge of Unsworth, his involvement in the cave rescue mission, his response to Unsworth’s diss, the ‘pedo guy’ thread, and Musk’s apology and behavior thereafter. (That behavior involved hiring a private investigator, who ended up being a conman, to dig into Unsworth’s past and see if there was any evidence of pedophilia Musk’s team could leak to the press; indeed, there was not).
Musk stuck to some clear talking points, though: that the tweet was in response to a “unprovoked attack” in which Unsworth accused Musk’s good works during the rescue saga of being a PR stunt. He also said that the ‘pedo guy’ phrasing did not literally mean that he thought Unsworth was a pedophile, just that he was a generally “creepy guy.” He said that the insult was on the same figurative level as the insult Unsworth originally levied at him: that Musk could “stick his submarine where it hurts.”
“I assume he did not literally mean to sodomize me with a submarine,” Musk said. “Just as I didn’t literally mean he was a pedophile, he didn’t mean he wanted to shove a sub up my ass.”
But how figurative Musk’s language was intended to be is in question. In the original insult twitter chain, Musk called it “sus” (i.e. suspicious) that Unsworth, who is a UK expat, was living in Thailand. Musk also said in a response on Twitter that he would bet Unsworth being a pedophile was true. Plus, he engaged the services of a private detective (albeit a less than legitimate one), and ended up calling Unsworth a “child rapist” in an angry email to a BuzzFeed reporter. Yikes.
Musk’s attorneys are trying to show his humanity: Musk teared up on the stand when asked about his childhood, saying “it was difficult.” Musk’s sleeker looking (and literally faster-talking) prosecution seems poised to put up a good fight.
The trial, and Musk’s testimony, continues Wednesday.