Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire and Facebook board member, appeared today at the National Press Club in Washington, where he gave a short speech defending his support of Donald Trump and answered journalists’ written questions about his decade-long campaign to destroy Gawker Media. His answers revealed a deep-seated hatred toward Gawker and its staff, and in at least one case contradicted his past statements about the defunct site. The event ended with Thiel exiting the building as his security detail manhandled reporters, including one from Gizmodo, who tried to speak to him.
Serving as Thiel’s official interlocutor was the Press Club’s president, Thomas Burr, who told Gizmodo that he received over 100 questions from reporters and others via email. That inevitably meant that not all of the submitted questions were addressed, but Thiel’s responses to Burr’s lines of inquiry were still illuminating. After Burr asked whether his secret legal war against Gawker set a dangerous precedent, Thiel delivered a long, rambling answer in which he accused former Gawker editor A.J. Daulerio of being an “aspiring child pornographer” because Daulerio had mocked a lawyer’s question during a deposition that played in court during the Hulk Hogan trial.
In the same answer, Thiel attempted to summarize Gawker’s entire editorial output of the past fourteen years:
There were many different targets [Gawker] had, they had targets in Silicon Valley, they had celebrities as targets. But one big class of targets that Gawker went after were people in the media. The one class of people they especially hated were other reporters, other writers, and in the pre-histories—as we were building up [the Hogan case]—and some of the people who encouraged me to keep going were some of my friends in the media, because they knew how much Gawker had actually, specifically targeted more successful writers and reporters over the years.
Burr, who serves as the Washington correspondent for the Salt Lake Tribune, did not press Thiel to name which of his “friends in the media” had encouraged him to continue his campaign against Gawker. (In a brief conversation afterward, Burr told Gizmodo that he wished he had challenged Thiel on that aspect of his answer.) Furthermore, the other reporters in the room were not allowed to ask Thiel follow-up questions, and were required to remain in the ballroom until Thiel had completely exited the building. Emma Roller, a writer for the New York Times, wrote on Twitter: “I’ve never seen this level of security at a [Press Club] event, including when Ben Carson was still running for president.”
Due to a hiccup involving press credentials, the National Press Club denied Gizmodo entry to its main ballroom, where Thiel and Burr conducted their discussion. After the event concluded, however, Gizmodo was able to approach Thiel, who was flanked by two security guards, as he walked toward the elevator. Asked for the names of his aforementioned media friends, Thiel said, “Um—I have—I have to go.” Moments later, one of his guards put his arm out and pushed Gizmodo away from Thiel. A guard also reportedly “body checked” another reporter who tried to ask him a question.
The remainder of the billionaire’s other statements did not go over very well with the audience of journalists he seemed to be trying to placate. During one tangent, for example, he said: “One of the striking things is that if you’re middle class, if you’re upper-middle-class, if you’re a single-digit millionaire like Hulk Hogan, you have no effective access to our legal system. It costs too much.” And, just before he treated Daulerio’s sarcastic deposition comment as an entirely serious one, he claimed that “the media is always taking Trump literally. It never takes him seriously, but it always takes him literally.”
Thiel’s explanation of his support for Hulk Hogan’s $100 million lawsuit also raised questions about the nature of his scheme against Gawker and his involvement in the Hogan case in particular. For example: In a May interview with the New York Times, he confirmed that he was funding lawsuits against Gawker beyond the one filed by Hogan: “[Thiel] refused to divulge exactly what other cases he has funded but said, ‘It’s safe to say this is not the only one.’” This morning, however, he seemed to give a much different answer:
Burr: Are you engaged in any other lawsuits against news organizations?
Thiel: Uh — not — uh — um — I’ve been involved in the Gawker case, nothing else.
His comments presented a very different picture of his involvement in the Hogan lawsuit, too. In June, Forbes reported that Charles J. Harder, the lead lawyer in the Hogan lawsuit and several other cases against Gawker Media, was not aware of Thiel’s identity before the magazine revealed it the month prior:
According to multiple sources familiar with Harder’s arrangement, he never had any direct contact with Thiel. And, these sources claim, Harder didn’t even know who was funding the litigation until Forbes broke the news in May. What he surely did know: The checks cleared. And there was presumably more where that came from, if he could find more cases.
Neither Thiel nor Harder ever challenged the accuracy of the magazine’s reporting. But on Monday morning, Thiel appeared to suggest that he was personally involved in shaping Hogan’s litigation strategy, not just cutting checks to Harder willy-nilly. “I was very careful in the Hulk Hogan litigation in picking a lawsuit where the fight was over privacy,” Thiel told Burr. “We did not even bring a libel action, because that was sort of the way that I wanted to make clear, that it was not about the media more generally.”
Perhaps the most telling moment of the morning came after Thiel made his way to the elevator, but before his security guards began peeling reporters off his path. As he walked through the Press Club’s lobby, a middle-aged woman standing next to a nearby wall approached from his left. With outstretched arms, she told him, “I’m a Trump supporter!” But the billionaire kept moving. Once he and his guards had disappeared into the elevator, the woman came up to Gizmodo and said, “I’ve never seen anything like that before. Have you?”