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Sabatini sues news site for defamation after it claims he lied about Webster lying about Trump endorsement

April 30, 2024 at 12:10:28 AM

Andrea Charur


MAGA firebrand Anthony Sabatini is suing conservative media outlet The Floridian for calling him a liar when he says Congressman Daniel Webster is lying about being endorsed by former president Donald Trump. "If he was going to endorse, he would definitely endorse me."

Norine Dworkin/VoxPopouli

Before the candidates for Congressional District 11 start campaigning in earnest for voter approval in the August Republican primary, two candidates are duking it out for somebody else’s approval: former President Donald Trump.  

And Anthony Sabatini, chair of the Lake County GOP, is taking the fight to court. 

Sabatini filed a libel suit April 7 in Lake County's Fifth Circuit Court against the political news site The Floridian after the news pub ran an article stating that Sabatini falsely claimed Republican Congressman Daniel Webster lied about having Trump’s endorsement. 

Sabatini said he plans to add Webster or one of his campaign staffers to the suit after his campaign Facebook posted about the endorsement on April 24. 

“Webster's lying and saying that Trump is personally supporting him in the race, and that's completely false,” Sabatini said in an interview on Monday. “If he was going to endorse, he would definitely endorse me.”

The fight from the MAGA firebrand, who blamed the Baltimore Key bridge collapse on DEI, has been brewing for about a year. Last year, Trump called on “every Republican in Florida who’s in Congress” to endorse him for the GOP nomination in the presidential primaries, Sabatini said. 

In May 2023, Webster told Politico that he’s endorsing Trump, and the article cited an anonymous source saying Trump agreed to endorse Webster’s reelection campaign. Sabatini told VoxPopuli that “Webster had one of his staffers lie to Politico.” The anonymous source is not identified in the article as a campaign staffer or as anyone affiliated in with the Webster campaign. Politico said the source was “familiar with the call.”

Then in December 2023, The Floridian published an article, announcing Webster had received Trump’s “Official Team Trump” digital seal, with an image of a Webster campaign text message displaying the emblem.

“You will notice my website and emails now feature the Official Trump Seal of Approval!” the campaign text message reads. 

The “seal of approval” is the Trump campaign’s way of granting authenticity to candidates, committees or other organizations that claim to be affiliated with Trump. The seal, which candidates can use on advertisements and social media, has a non-exclusive license. According to Trump’s website, legal action can be taken against those who use the seal without campaign approval.

Sabatini denies the seal's authenticity and claims the Webster campaign found the image and began using it. He said Trump’s endorsements are “very, very public” and are posted on Trump’s account on Truth Social.

VoxPopuli could not find evidence of other 2024 Trump-endorsed candidates using the seal or of a post on Truth Social endorsing Webster.

In an April 18 video at a campaign meet-and-greet in Tavares, Sabatini campaign volunteer Norman Lendzion asked members of Webster’s campaign team when Trump endorsed Webster

“If you were at Mar-a-Lago, he said, ‘Don’t run against him.’ We have his gold Seal of Approval, and we got that from the Trump campaign,” one woman said in the video, sidestepping the question.

“He personally called,” said another Webster campaign member.

Sabatini has continuously maintained on his social media that Webster is lying about Trump’s endorsement.

“FACT: My opponent RINO [Republican in name only] Dan Webster has NEVER been endorsed by President Trump—not in this election, or in any past election,” Sabatini wrote in a LinkedIn post before filing the lawsuit. “Recently, Webster has been desperately putting out FALSE ads implying he has the support of Trump.” 

On April 6, The Floridian published “Sabatini Falsely Claims Webster Does Not Have Trump’s Endorsement,” writing that Sabitini’s statement “appears to not be true,” citing Webster’s use of the seal, a video of Trump praising Webster and a photo of Ralph Smith, a party officer of the Lake County GOP, denying Sabatini’s statements on Facebook.

“I heard Trump’s endorsement of Webster as did Sabatini,” Smith, who supports Webster, said in the post. 

That article triggered Sabatini’s lawsuit. He claims the site defamed him by “accusing him of lying and deceiving voters,” according to court documents. 

Neither the Webster campaign nor The Floridian responded to email and phone requests for comment. 

Lendzion said that people would lie about a Trump endorsement because it is “a security thing” that could help a candidate “attract voters who might be a little on the fence, especially in terms of this primary.”

Lendzion and Sabatini told VoxPopuli they believe Webster is not endorsed because Ballotpedia does not have Webster listed on its 2024 list for Trump-endorsed congressional candidates. 

Ballotpedia currently lists Bill Posey, who dropped out of his race, and Gus Bilirakis as the only Florida congressional candidates endorsed by Trump. Ballotpedia hasn’t listed a Trump endorsement for CD-11 since  2017. 

Sabatini told VoxPopuli it’s not likely that Trump will formally endorse a candidate in “safe Republican districts like [District 11].” Sabatini, however, has used a photo of himself with Trump on campaign advertisements and told VoxPopuli “Donald Trump strongly supports me.” 


Sidebar: The Lawsuit

Sabatini sued The Floridian’s publisher Javier Manjarres and his media company, Shark Tank Media Inc., along with journalist Jackson Bakich for more than $50,000 in damages. 

The standard for winning defamation lawsuits against journalists for defamation is very high to ensure the free exchange of ideas. It's called the "actual malice standard," established with the 1968 civil rights case New York Times v. Sullivan and it requires proof that The Floridian published “with knowledge of [their] falsity or with reckless disregard of whether [they were] true or false.”

Sabatini, an attorney, defending himself, wrote in the case documents that the three defendants showed actual malice because they “have knowledge that Trump has not endorsed Webster, and further, have acted with reckless disregard as to whether the claim that such an endorsement exists is false or not.” 

The case says The Floridian hurt Sabatini’s reputation among voters who read the site and that they coordinated with the Webster campaign. He called the media site a “pay-for-play blog” in the case and said they write “promotional articles” at a price

“Whether they got paid or not, we won't know until discovery starts in the lawsuit,” Sabatini said. “But generally, they get paid. They're always paid.” 

The Floridian describes itself as a “political media platform.” The articles about Webster’s endorsements do not have a disclaimer stating the articles were paid promotional articles. Sabatini said this is because candidates can pay for an advertisement and the positive articles comes as a “wink wink nod nod deal.”

VoxPopuli could not verify whether the Webster campaign paid for advertising or promotional articles in The Floridian. Webster does not have a campaign advertisement running on the website.

Sabatini said Bakich has been served, but that Manjarres has not yet been found. He produced emails between him and the company Accurate Serve of Ocala, showing that they could not serve Manjarres because the home listed as his residential address has been owned by someone else for the past three years, and he no longer uses the PO Box listed as his mailing address. 

Sabatini said Thursday that he will add Webster to the suit after the Webster campaign Facebook page posted an article from The Floridian about Sabatini using a picture with Trump for advertising without an endorsement. Sabatini said the article was “calling [him] a liar, and saying Donald Trump has endorsed Webster.” 

“Grateful to be given President Trump’s Official Seal of Approval for the exclusive use of his Supported Candidates!” the Webster campaign post said. 

The post does not say that Sabatini is lying, nor does the article linked in the post. The article said Webster is “endorsed/approved” by Trump.


Sidebar: The Campaign

Webster, 75, has been a U.S. Representative since 2011. He narrowly won the 2022 Republican primary against far-right candidate Laura Loomer, VoxPopuli reported. 

Webster has come under fire for his absentee voting record. He has missed 434 of 8,173 roll call votes, according to

Sabatini, 35, was the Florida Representative in District 32 from 2020-2022. He ran for U.S. Congress in District 7 in 2022 and lost in the Republican primaries to Cory Mills. 

Sabatini repeatedly trashed Mills during the 2022 race, including calling Mills “subhuman trash” and attacking Mills’ wife, who is from Iraq, “anti-Christian,” reported The Daytona Beach News-Journal. His approach to the District 11 race remains the same. Sabatini called Webster a “RINO fossil” and positioned himself as the “MAGA” candidate in Facebook posts. 

Sabatini is endorsed by Villagers for Trump, a group representing the MAGA stronghold in the Sumter County retirement community The Villages. The group confirmed the endorsement in an email to VoxPopuli. Webster lost Sumter County to Loomer in 2022, but won every other county in the district, according to the Florida Division of Elections

Webster and Sabatini are joined by candidate John McCloy in the Republican primaries. The winner will run against Democrat Barbara Harden Hall in the November election. 

Election day for the Florida primaries is Aug. 20. Early voting starts Aug. 10. 

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