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Kelly sues right-wing website over Hitler costume 'lie'

Note: This story is more than 2 years old.

Kelly sues right-wing website over Hitler costume 'lie'

  • Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Kelly, an Arizona Democrat leading Republican Martha McSally in a race that could determine who controls Congress’ upper chamber, sued the right-leaning website National File this week after it published photos it claims are Kelly dressed in an Adolf Hitler costume.

According to the National File story posted Oct. 23 and updated Tuesday, Kelly wore the suit and mustache depicting the Nazi leader to a Halloween party in 1985, the year before he graduated from the Merchant Marine Academy. Kelly denied the photos are him, first in media reports after the photos emerged, then in a lawsuit filed in Pima County Superior Court on Monday.

“This is a lie, and defendants know it is a lie,” Kelly says in his complaint.

The defamation complaint names National File, its editor-in-chief Tom Pappert, and reporter Patrick Howley as defendants. They did not respond to a request for comment.

All of the defendants knew the story was false, Kelly’s campaign manager Jen Cox said in an emailed statement.

“Since they have refused to take it down, we’re taking the necessary steps,” Cox said.

The Hitler photo is from a Merchant Marine Academy yearbook article about a Halloween mixer. No caption appears with the photo, and no one in it is identified.  The post is a partisan effort to smear Kelly and help his opponent, the incumbent Republican McSally, Kelly says in the complaint.

Minutes after first contacting the campaign about the photos, National File published them, Kelly claims, then continued to update the post after it was deemed false by two independent fact-checkers and five of Kelly’s classmates.

According to Kelly’s lawsuit, a man named Karim Addetia contacted Kelly classmate Peter Lindsey about the photos in September. Lindsey told Addetia he “highly doubted” the photo was Kelly. Jennifer Boykin and Ed McDonald, classmates who attended the mixer, also denied the photos are Kelly, the lawsuit says.

At the time, Addetia was a consultant for the political action committee Senate Leadership Fund, Kelly claims. The PAC has spent $245 million to elect Republicans to the Senate, according to, a nonpartisan group that tracks campaign spending via Federal Election Commission filings.

That PAC and an Arizona counterpart, Defend Arizona, has spent $31 million to defeat Kelly, the former NASA astronaut says in his complaint.

PolitiFact and deemed the National File post false.

National File also published verified photos of Kelly from the same yearbook, but Kelly says the Hitler photo bears no resemblance to the other photos.

“The attribute the photos to Mr. Kelly demonstrates, at a minimum, a reckless disregard for the truth,” the former space shuttle commander says in his lawsuit.

A poll out Tuesday shows Kelly leading McSally in the special election to fill the remainder of late Senator John McCain’s term. McCain died in office in 2018, when McSally was in a heated race to fill Arizona’s other Senate seat.

McSally, the nation’s first female combat pilot and an ardent supporter of President Donald Trump, lost that race. Governor Doug Ducey then appointed her to fill McCain’s seat until this election.

The OH Predictive Insights phone survey taken Oct. 22-25 has Kelly leading McSally 50%-45% — within the 3.7% margin of error. The race has attracted a huge influx of money: McSally has raised $51 million this year versus $12 million in 2016 while Kelly has raised $83 million compared to the $16 million raised by Senator Kyrsten Sinema, McSally’s 2018 opponent, OH Predictive reported.

National File was founded in August 2019. The outlet’s team includes journalists with experience at several right-leaning media outlets, including Breitbart, InfoWars, The Daily Caller, Free Beacon, and The Washington Times, the publication’s website says.

Kelly seeks unspecified damages — including punitive damages — and a court order for National File to take down the post.

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