Did Elon Musk “try to take credit in any way for the rescue operation” that saved 12 young Thai footballers and their coach from imminent death in the Tham Luang cave network last summer?
That was the question at the center of the billionaire entrepreneur’s second day of testimony in the defamation case brought by Vernon Unsworth, a British cave explorer. The trial, in federal court in Los Angeles, will determine whether Musk’s 15 July 2018 tweet calling Unsworth a “pedo guy” constituted defamation.
“Not at all,” Musk said in response to the question of taking credit, posed by his lawyer, Alex Spiro, on Wednesday morning. The Tesla and SpaceX chief noted that he had tweeted modestly about the efforts of his team of engineers, who built a miniature submarine that he delivered to the rescue site. “Thanks but we’ve not done anything useful yet,” one tweet read. “It’s all other people.”
On the witness stand, Musk added: “The pump and generator team deserve immense credit here. Nobody talks about them.”
What people talk about, what they believe, what they mean, and why – these were all questions that surrounded the celebrity CEO’s testimony. Unsaid, but obvious to the journalists who chased Musk out of the courtroom the moment he was dismissed, was that nobody was talking about the pump and generator teams because everyone was talking about Musk and his mini-sub.
To Musk’s legal team, this is not Musk’s fault, nor was it necessarily his intention. Spiro also introduced evidence that Musk’s efforts to assist were welcomed by Richard Stanton, the British cave diver who helped locate and rescue the football team.
In an email thread under the subject line “This is Elon Musk”, the pair corresponded about the submarine, and Musk was encouraged to continue his work with urgency. “It is absolutely worth continuing with the development of this system in as timely a manner as possible,” Stanton wrote on 8 July. In another email, the diver advised: “If you make a capsule that tightly encloses a 15-year-old boy it will fit through.”
The emails undermine the cynicism with which many in the press received the billionaire’s efforts. Musk has five teenage sons, the jury learned, and his team worked long hours over a holiday in an attempt to do something they thought might save lives.
“He denigrated our efforts in a way that was completely wrong,” Musk testified. “He said it wouldn’t work when we were told by Stanton that wasn’t true. He said we were thrown out, which was wrong. He was extremely rude and contemptuous.”
And yet, under re-cross-examination by Unsworth’s attorney, L Lin Wood, another aspect of Musk’s rescue efforts came into focus.
Asked why he had used Twitter to apologize to Unsworth for the “pedo guy” remark, rather than by contacting him directly or giving an interview on television, Musk responded: “Most things I say on Twitter will generally get some press awareness … If I write something on Twitter, it will get reported.”
Wood introduced into evidence what appeared to be dozens of tweets sent by Musk documenting the process of building the submarine and delivering it to Thailand, including a video showing SpaceX engineers testing the tube in a swimming pool. Faced with the volume of tweets that Musk had just admitted were likely to generate press coverage, the billionaire responded defensively. “I mean, I tweet a lot in general … I was looking for feedback from the public to see if there were any improvements they could suggest.
“I frequently solicit feedback on Tesla car design, even rockets,” he added. “We’ve incorporated quite a lot of feedback from Twitter on Tesla car design.”
Much of the rest of Musk’s testimony involved a close parsing of the degree of flippancy that should be accorded to “pedo” versus “pedo guy”, and further questions about Musk’s intent when he deployed the epithet against Unsworth.
“I did not accuse Mr Unsworth of being a pedophile,” he said.
Questioned by his own lawyer about whether anyone had asked him to clarify whether he meant to accuse Unsworth of pedophilia, Musk said that the first time he was ever asked about that point was at the deposition he gave in the summer of 2019. Wood followed up on this point in his re-cross-examination, saying: “Had you been asked by any member of the media or on Twitter about whether you were referring to pedophilia?”
Musk responded to this question with a bit more circumspection: “It’s possible that occurred on Twitter somewhere.”
Musk concluded his testimony shortly before lunch and was followed on the stand by Jared Birchall, a financial adviser who runs Musk’s private office and who was responsible for engaging a private investigator to look into Unsworth’s background.