Cole McCafferty was 12 when he first saw Donald Trump on television and decided to read The Art of the Deal.
“He seemed really smart and I just liked the way he came across in the book,” McCafferty, now 15, said. That led the middle schooler from Old City to post a video endorsing Trump.
“It was a cute little thing,” McCafferty said. “I wrote the thing out and I got my dad to help me with the grammar and I posted it.”
The media attention that followed was, well, huge. Russian television stations, far-right radio show host Alex Jones, and Philadelphia Magazine all interviewed him.
So did Newsweek, in an article about Trump’s young supporters, which his family thought crossed the line by linking him to the far right. They sued the magazine for defamation. A federal District Court judge rejected their claim, but they appealed. This week an appellate panel sided with Newsweek.
Now McCafferty is talking about how people got the wrong impression of him. He’s still an outspoken supporter of the president, eager to help him win reelection in November, but he’s also taken the last two years to raise thousands of dollars for homeless veterans in the city.
“Look, I’m an American. I believe everyone should have their own right to choose their opinions freely,” McCafferty said. “But some of the negative blowback I got when the article came out …I was overwhelmed by it.”
The article quoted a Columbia University professor who said the far right was using children like McCafferty to " ’camouflage’ positions of the hard right as feel-good sweetness and light, when, in fact, they are defending raw racism and sexual abuse.’”
McCafferty’s parents, Brian and Melissa McCafferty, filed the lawsuit against Newsweek on his behalf, alleging it defamed him. Brian McCafferty said they will appeal this week’s Third Circuit Court ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Circuit Judge Stephanos Bibas wrote in the opinion for a three-judge panel that the magazine was protected by the First Amendment and the statements were not defamatory. The professor’s comments were directed at adults on the far right, not McCafferty, Bibas found. He noted that the boy had made a name for himself as a “politically vocal boy.”
“Political discourse can be bruising,” Bibas wrote. “People often express opinions that offend others. But the First Amendment protects virtually all of those opinions, even offensive and hurtful ones, to promote a greater good: robust political discourse. The price of free speech is putting up with all sorts of name-calling and hurtful rhetoric.”
Bibas was appointed to the court by Trump in 2017, filling a seat previously held by Marjorie Rendell.
An attorney for Newsweek declined to comment.
McCafferty wanted to, though. He said the last two years have been tough. He’s lost friends and the backlash on social media was intense. He took down all his accounts and videos. His dad went to the FBI after he said the family received a death threat from a man in Florida.
“It was crazy," Brian McCafferty said. "It’s a polarizing country, we’re so divided.”
While Cole admits he sought out the spotlight — some of his videos got upwards of 16 million views — he wasn’t ready for the barrage that came at him after the national magazine article.
He’s a somewhat introverted teenager. When asked about his favorite movies, he said he typically just watches the news. He was disappointed when final exams at St. Joe’s Prep were canceled for the year. In his downtime, he’s reading a collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald short stories and novels and doing work for his charity.
In 2017 he started raising money for homeless veterans through an initiative called “Cole’s Challenge.” To date, he’s raised $50,000 for the Veterans Multi-Services Center at the former Edison High School, which provides employment and other services for veterans. The kitchen, under construction, will be “Cole’s Kitchen.”
“I just want people to know: I’m a good kid. I’m a good student," he said. “I don’t blame people for getting the wrong impression. The country’s very divided, but first impressions can be misleading.”
As Bibas’ ruling lays out, McCafferty didn’t shy away from echoing some of Trump’s vitriolic language. In interviews, he called Madonna “trash” and Hillary Clinton deplorable. He said he doesn’t regret those comments.
“This country’s always been divided between Democrats and Republicans," he said. "It was in the Obama years. It is under Trump. It’s always been divided 50-50. I don’t think the president trolling people on Twitter will lead to a civil war. That’s just the way he is.”
McCafferty said his political views are entirely his own, unshaped by his father, who voted for Trump but considers himself an independent, or his mom, who’s a Democrat. McCafferty is Catholic and supports candidates who oppose abortion rights. He also lost a cousin to drug addiction and likes the promises Trump has made to curb illegal drug activity at the border.
He doesn’t see himself running for office but may want to get involved in campaigns. He’s had some pretty politically savvy ideas, like going to Luzerne County in 2016 to give a pro-Trump speech about coal miners at the base of a statue paying tribute to them. (Both of his great-grandfathers were miners and his grandmother still lives in Nanticoke.)
The county wound up being key to Trump’s victory in Pennsylvania, flipping from Democratic to Republican.
While his father is wary of it, McCafferty says he wants to start posting videos again to promote Trump.
“I’ve been silent for the past two years,” he said. “I’m going to get back out there with a couple of videos, so expect a lot more content from me.”