SAN FRANCISCO -- Elon Musk enlisted help from senior executives at each of his companies to clean up after his personal attack against a British cave diver last year, and bristled at their initial suggestion for how to apologize, according to newly released court documents.
Sam Teller, a director in the office of the CEO at Tesla, SpaceX, Boring Co. and Neuralink, sought feedback from a team of executives, lawyers and advisers inside and outside the companies on what Musk should do after baselessly calling the diver a pedophile in July 2018. The insult, lobbed after Musk’s attempt to help save Thai children trapped in a cave was rejected, sent Tesla’s stock down and prompted the group to suggest that Musk take a break from Twitter.
“After sleeping on this, I’m not happy about the suggested approach,” Musk wrote back to Teller, in an email included in the court documents released Monday. The CEO said “it would have been particularly foolish and craven” to apologize the night after Tesla’s shares declined, as it “would simply have been dismissed as a disingenuous and cowardly attempt to restore the stock price.”
“We need to stop panicking,” Musk wrote.
The documents spring from the defamation lawsuit filed by the diver, Vernon Unsworth, against Musk and show that the CEO’s actions created a distraction for financial, communications and legal personnel within Tesla as the electric-car maker was struggling to mass-produce and deliver its crucial Model 3 sedan to customers. Unsworth includes them in a filing to show Musk was repeatedly advised that his attacks were unwarranted. They also show how cautious his advisers were in trying to restrain him.
In the filings, Unsworth calls Musk “a thin-skinned billionaire who is obsessed with his public image and who has a history of vindictively and intentionally ignoring truth to maintain that PR-created image.”
Musk’s lawyer in the defamation suit, Alex Spiro, said in an email that the case is a “money grab” by Unsworth and accused him of profiting off the Thai cave rescue. “The truth of his motivations and actions will come out soon enough,” Spiro wrote of Unsworth.
Last month, Musk revealed in a court filing that he paid $50,000 to hire a private investigator who would look into Unsworth. Attorneys for Unsworth wrote in the filings released Monday that the investigator was offered a $10,000 bonus if he was able to confirm nefarious behavior, which was never paid, and instructed him to leak information about the diver to U.K. tabloids. Musk also enlisted help from a second investigator and has refused to provide information about it, Unsworth’s attorneys claim.
Unsworth’s legal team has deposed Musk and members of his closest inner circle, including Jared Birchall, the head of his family office; Teller, his chief of staff; and Steve Davis, the president of Boring Co.
In the email sent to Musk in July of last year, Teller sent a draft outline of an apology for Musk to send out. Teller wrote that he had solicited feedback from almost a dozen people in crafting the proposed message, including Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s COO; Antonio Gracias, a SpaceX and Tesla director; Deepak Ahuja, then Tesla’s CFO; two former Tesla communications executives; and Anthony Romero, the executive director of the ACLU.
Teller advised that Musk begin the message addressed to his employees: “I understand that my recent behavior has probably embarrassed you and I’m sorry.” Teller suggested that Musk say he understood people wouldn’t stop attacking him on Twitter, but that he would do his best to “tune them out.”
Musk ended up apologizing via tweets, posting the next day that he had acted in anger in response to Unsworth’s criticism of his attempt to engineer a mini rescue submarine that ultimately wasn’t used. Weeks after the exchange with Teller, the CEO tweeted that he had secured funding to take Tesla private, then abruptly abandoned that pursuit, spurring a federal securities-fraud lawsuit and costing him the position of Tesla chairman.
Following the tweeted apology, Musk sent emails to a BuzzFeed News reporter in which he renewed his attacks against Unsworth. The court filings released Monday show that Jeff Nesbit, the executive director of Climate Nexus, an environmental communications non-profit, was alarmed by the exchange.
“It clearly blew up in his face, for no good reason,” Nesbit wrote to Juleanna Glover, a consultant Musk enlisted for help. “One or two more of these and I can guarantee that there will be a no confidence vote on the BOD led by the big institutional investors. And he will not survive such a vote, at least not in the public sphere.”
Glover -- who served on the staffs of former President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and ex-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani -- shared Nesbit’s email with Musk. The CEO replied in agreement: “I’m a f---ing idiot.”
He said emailing with the BuzzFeed reporter was “one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done” and called it a distraction that “couldn’t come at a worse time.”
As Musk was dealing with fallout from the Unsworth attack and his short-lived effort to take Tesla private in the following weeks, Glover and Musk exchanged more emails about arranging an on-the-record interview to clear the air.
“We just need to kill this nonsense speculation around your mental state,” Glover wrote. They arranged for Musk to go on a popular podcast hosted by Joe Rogan, a California-based comedian.
Glover advised Musk to decide in advance what he would say if Rogan asked about the Securities and Exchange Commission’s securities-fraud lawsuit, which Musk later settled. If Unsworth came up during the interview, Glover advised Musk to say that he had “gotten into enough trouble on that already” and wouldn’t say anything more.
Musk appeared on the podcast the next day and smoked marijuana.
The case is Unsworth v. Musk, 18-cv-08048, U.S. District Court, Central District of California (Los Angeles).