Elon Musk: pedo guy insult was 'not classy' but not meant literally

Billionaire entrepreneur admits he ‘would say very little at all if I just said sense’

When Elon Musk took the stand on Tuesday, the question was whether he defamed a British cave explorer by calling him a “pedo guy”, but at times it seemed the real issue was more fundamental – the fragility of male egos.

“This is a case about insults between two men,” said Musk’s attorney, Alex Spiro, in his opening statement to the jury in a federal courthouse in Los Angeles on the first day of the trial.

Vernon Unsworth, a British national who was instrumental in coordinating the Tham Luang cave rescue in 2018, insulted the Tesla chief executive and made fun of his attempts to assist by building a miniature submarine. In an interview with CNN that quickly went viral, the cave explorer said Musk should “stick his submarine where it hurts”. Musk, who admitted that he had no idea who Unsworth was at the time, responded by calling the cave explorer “sus[picious]” and a “pedo guy” on Twitter.

To Unsworth’s attorneys, Musk’s insult was a libelous allegation that resulted in “shame, mortification, worry and distress” to Unsworth “during what should have been one of the proudest moments in his life”.

To Spiro, Unsworth’s interview represented an “attack” on the “genuineness of his efforts”. “That could not go unanswered,” Spiro said.

Musk’s conception of himself came under close scrutiny on the trial’s first day, which began with a lengthy cross-examination of Musk by Unsworth’s lead attorney, L Lin Wood. The Tesla and SpaceX chief downplayed his global influence, noting that he has “tried very hard to convince people to take climate change seriously” with limited effect, and that he has no publicist or PR team.

But Musk also conceded that dozens, if not hundreds, of people on Twitter had prodded him to get involved with the weeks-long rescue effort of the stranded Thai football team and that the Thai prime minister had requested to meet him when he arrived in the country on his private plane. The billionaire also admitted that at the time of his contretemps with Unsworth, he had a Google alert set for his own name, and that he watched the video of Unsworth’s interview “two or three” times before composing his tweets.

“It was an unprovoked attack on a good-natured attempt to help the kids, and [Unsworth] flat-out lied when he said we were asked to leave,” Musk testified. “I was upset. It was wrong and insulting and so I insulted him back.”

Another figure who appeared to have felt insulted by Musk was Wood, who took the cross-examination on a lengthy detour around Musk’s characterization of a letter he sent to Musk. “You described it as a ‘shakedown letter from a shakedown lawyer’,” Wood said, noting that Musk was actually unfamiliar with his legal career. The ensuing exchange prompted Judge Stephen Wilson to plead: “Let’s constrain ourselves.”

Musk’s primary defense, which he reiterated numerous times, was that he did not intend to call Unsworth a pedophile, but instead was using “pedo guy” to mean “creepy old guy”.

“Just as I thought it was obvious that he did not mean to physically sodomize me with a submarine, I thought it was obvious that I didn’t mean he was a pedophile,” Musk said. He argued that he did not retract his statement when he initially apologized to Unsworth because that “would have been worse”. “If you call someone a motherf’er, I think it would actually seem sarcastic to say, ‘I didn’t mean that he committed incest’,” Musk explained. “That would have seemed disingenuous.”

Ultimately, Musk argued, Unsworth’s riposte and his tweet were “equivalent insults”. He added, “Admittedly, this is not classy.”

In another moment of apparent self-awareness, he said: “There are a lot of things that I say. Not all of them have the same quality of thought. I would say very little at all if I just said sense.”

The argument that “pedo guy” does not mean “pedophilia” was complicated by Wood’s questions about Musk’s behavior and statements following the initial tweets. Musk engaged a private investigator to look into Unsworth’s background (the investigator turned out to be a “professional conman”), and told a reporter from BuzzFeed News that Unsworth was a “child rapist”.

“I fucking hope he sues me,” Musk wrote to the journalist. After reading the email aloud to the court, he added, “I guess be careful what you wish for.”

The trial began with opening statements on Tuesday morning following a jury selection process that demonstrated the extent of Musk’s fame. Numerous members of the jury pool disclosed business ties to Musk’s various companies, which include Tesla, SpaceX, the Boring Company, Open AI and Neuralink. Four potential jurors were Tesla owners. One man was dismissed when he said he could not be objective about the case because he is about to interview for a job with SpaceX, while two others were let go after admitting they followed Musk on Twitter and knew about the details of the case.

Only one potential juror, an aesthetician, admitted to having strong opinions about billionaires. She was dismissed. Another juror confessed to both “negative and positive” opinions about Musk, and he was allowed to remain.

Musk’s testimony will continue on Wednesday, when he will be questioned by his own attorney. Unsworth sat with his attorneys in court throughout the proceedings. He is expected to testify later in the week.


Julia Carrie Wong in Los Angeles

The GuardianTramp

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