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LOS ANGELES — Elon Musk owned up to insulting a British diver in a rash tweet but wouldn’t concede that he called the man a pedophile.
The Tesla CEO returned to the witness stand Wednesday as he faces a defamation lawsuit, trying to dance around the meaning of the “pedo guy” tweet he aimed at Vernon Unsworth, a cave diver who helped rescue a dozen boys and their soccer coach from a flooded Thailand cave last year.
Musk insisted he did not call Unsworth a pedophile, telling a jury in federal court in Los Angeles that the phrase he tweeted “was obviously a flippant insult, and no one interpreted it to mean pedophile.”
Unsworth’s lawyer asked the billionaire how the insult was interpreted in the media worldwide, and Musk said he recalled that news organizations “correctly interpreted it as an insult, not an accusation of pedophilia.”
Musk said he deleted the tweet within hours and apologized on Twitter two days later.
In testimony Tuesday, Musk said the insult meant only “creepy old man.”
The spat began when Unsworth ridiculed Musk’s effort to help in the rescue by having engineers at his companies, including Space X and The Boring Co., develop a mini-submarine that could transport the boys. Despite working around the clock to build the sub, Musk arrived in Thailand late in the rescue effort and the craft was never used.
Unsworth called it nothing more than a “PR stunt” and said Musk could stick the sub “where it hurts.” Musk watched the CNN clip of Unsworth several times before lashing out in a series of tweets on July 15, 2018.
“It was wrong and insulting, so I insulted him back,” the billionaire said. “It was an unprovoked attack on what was a good-natured attempt to help the kids.”
Unsworth is seeking unspecified damages for pain, suffering and emotional distress from the tech entrepreneur whose net worth exceeds $20 billion.
Musk’s lawyer, Alex Spiro, said Unsworth deserves nothing for what he called “joking, taunting tweets in a fight between men.”
The shame and mortification Unsworth said he experienced is undercut by the attention he received after the rescue, Spiro said, including honors from the Thai king and British prime minister and offers from agents and film crews.
On the witness stand, Musk gave answers that were at times humorous and sometimes seemed like those of an executive who’s under court order to be careful what he says.
Musk is required to have his tweets about Tesla screened as part of court settlement with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission over allegations he posted misleading information about the company that caused wild stock swings.
His tweet about Unsworth caused Tesla’s stock to drop about 3% the following day, though it recovered a day later.
With his arms crossed, Musk at times squinted and stared off in the distance as he searched for answers to events that occurred more than a year ago.
He clashed at one point with Unsworth’s attorney, L. Lin Wood, telling him he interpreted the lawyer’s letter threatening to sue as an extortion attempt.
“I get these shakedown letters a lot,” Musk said. “I think you’re looking for a significant payday.”
Musk’s attorney attempted to humanize the billionaire, having him discuss his family — 15-year-old twins and 13-year-old triplets, all boys. Musk choked up talking about a son who died as a baby and his childhood in South Africa.
“It wasn’t good,” he said.
Musk said he was asked to help with the cave rescue and decided to get involved when he heard a Thai navy diver died in the cave system and that a monsoon was forecast that could drown the soccer team.
Musk received no compensation for his efforts, but he acknowledged his work could have been interpreted as a publicity effort.
Though Musk apologized for his tweet about Unsworth, subsequent statements have called into question what he meant.
Musk responded to a question on Twitter about whether he had accused Unsworth of being a pedophile by saying, “Bet ya a signed dollar it’s true.”
He told a Buzzfeed reporter seeking comment on the threat of a lawsuit by Unsworth to “stop defending child rapists,” followed by expletives.
Musk was asked about an attempt to dig up dirt on Unsworth.
One of his executives communicated with someone who said he was an investigator but who turned out to be a con man. He was paid $52,000 and produced nothing damning about the diver.