Democrats Sue Trump Campaign, Russia, And Wikileaks Over 2016 Campaign
The Democratic National Committee has filed a lawsuit alleging a wide-ranging conspiracy to influence the 2016 election. As a legal document, it appears to be little more than a political stunt.
The Democratic National Committee has filed a wide-ranging lawsuit against the Trump campaign, Wikileaks, and a number of Russian individuals and organizations alleging a conspiracy to fix the 2016 Presidential election:
The Democratic National Committee opened a surprise legal assault on President Trump on Friday, filing a lawsuit in federal court alleging that the organization was the victim of a conspiracy by Russian officials, the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks to damage Hillary Clinton’s presidential run.
The 66-page complaint, filed in federal court in New York, uses the publicly known facts of the investigation into Russia’s election meddling to accuse Mr. Trump’s associates of illegally working with Russian intelligence agents to interfere with the outcome of the election. In the document, the committee accuses Republicans and the Russians of “an act of previously unimaginable treachery.”
The sweeping lawsuit startled Republicans in Washington as well as Democratic leaders, who were only briefed at the last minute about the D.N.C.’s plans to pursue civil litigation. Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic Party, said the committee had alerted Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrats in Congress, “when we were about to file.”
But Mr. Perez said in an interview the lawsuit had been taking shape for months, and recalled facing demands as early as the winter of 2017 to file suit against Mr. Trump for allegedly abetting foreign interference in an American election. He said he had instructed the committee to investigate that possibility, eventually engaging a plaintiffs’ law firm, Cohen Milstein, to assemble the complaint filed on Friday.
While there are multiple ongoing investigations of Mr. Trump and his campaign, most significantly by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, Mr. Perez said the D.N.C. decided to move ahead with a civil suit because the committee believed there was an ongoing threat of foreign interference in American elections and it was unclear when Mr. Mueller’s probe might conclude. And certain claims in the lawsuit, he said, face statutory expiration dates.
“I don’t know when Mueller will finish,” Mr. Perez said. “I’m very concerned about the run-up to the midterm elections.”
Mr. Perez firmly denied that the lawsuit had a political purpose, but he appeared to allude at points to the possibility that civil litigation might bring to light damaging information about Mr. Trump and his associates.
The complaint is largely based on information that has previously been disclosed in news reports and subsequent court proceedings. But if the lawsuit proceeds, the president and his campaign aides could be forced to disclose documents and submit to depositions that require them to answer questions under oath.
To reach the discovery stage, lawsuits have to survive any motion to dismiss the litigation by the defendants.
Mr. Perez suggested, for instance, that Mr. Trump’s tax returns would reveal “shady conduct” if they were ever made public. Asked if part of the lawsuit’s aim was to force such disclosures, Mr. Perez demurred: “I haven’t given that any thought.”
White House officials, the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee did not immediately comment on the lawsuit. Roger J. Stone Jr., a former campaign adviser to Mr. Trump who is named as a defendant in the suit, dismissed it in an email as “a left-wing conspiracy theory dressed up as a lawsuit” and “a fund-raising ploy.”
In a statement forwarded by Mr. Stone, Rob Buschel, Mr. Stone’s lawyer, said he had not yet been served with the D.N.C. suit and described it as a “regurgitation” of a complaint filed last year by Democrats alleging their privacy was invaded during the campaign. That litigation is still in progress.
“Roger Stone did not conspire, collude, or take part in any action to subvert the electoral process,” the statement said. “Sadly, these meritless lawsuits against Roger Stone will not be an effective form of therapy for loss the D.N.C. suffered in 2016.”
The Democrats’ legal maneuver comes amid a swirl of intensifying scrutiny of Mr. Trump, his associates and their interactions with Russia. The president, who has long denied allegations of collusion, has repeatedly attacked the special counsel probe this week and has vented angrily about renewed claims by James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, that Mr. Trump sought to influence the bureau’s review of the election.
Mr. Trump added Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, and two other lawyers to his legal team this week. And on Thursday night, Mr. Trump thundered on social media that there was “NO COLLUSION and NO OBSTRUCTION,” and again branded the whole Russia investigation as a “witch hunt.”
The Democrats’ lawsuit may agitate the president further. Their complaint is broad in its claims and stark in its language, naming a long list of defendants that includes Mr. Trump; his son, Donald Jr., and son-in-law, Jared Kushner; the Russian government and its intelligence service; and a group of former campaign aides including Mr. Stone, Paul Manafort, Rick Gates and George Papadopoulos.
There is substantial overlap between the targets of the D.N.C. lawsuit and the group of people known to be under investigation by Mr. Mueller. Mr. Manafort has been indicted by the special counsel, while Mr. Gates and Mr. Papadopoulos have both pleaded guilty to different charges.
The Democrats accused Mr. Trump’s campaign of being “a racketeering enterprise” that worked with the Russians and WikiLeaks in a conspiracy that included hacking email servers at the D.N.C. and leaking damaging information to the public. The Trump campaign had extensive warnings of the Russians’ activities and intentions, the Democrats allege, embraced the meddling of a foreign power.
“Rather than report these repeated messages that Russia intended to interfere with U.S. elections, the Trump campaign and its agents gleefully welcomed Russia’s help,” the lawsuit said. “Indeed, the Trump campaign solicited Russia’s illegal assistance, and maintained secret communications with individuals tied to the Russian government, including one of the intelligence agencies responsible for attacking the D.N.C.”
The lawsuit demands monetary damages and a declaration that the defendants conspired to alter the course of the election.
Mr. Perez said that the party had not worked on the lawsuit with Democratic leaders on the intelligence committees in the House and Senate, who are probing contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia through legislative investigations.
He also waved off a suggestion that the suit might help draw in donations to the Democratic Party. “This isn’t a fund-raising tool,” Mr. Perez said. “This is a search for justice.”
As The Washington Post explains, the lawsuit does not name President Trump directly as a Defendant, but it does target a number of people involved in his campaign:
The suit does not name Trump as a defendant. Instead, it targets various Trump aides who met with people believed to be affiliated with Russia during the campaign, including the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., his son-in-law Jared Kushner, his campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Manafort’s deputy, Rick Gates.
Manafort and Gates were charged with money-laundering, fraud and tax evasion in a case brought by special prosecutors last year. In February, Gates pleaded guilty to conspiracy and lying to the FBI and is cooperating with investigators. Manafort has pleaded not guilty.
The DNC lawsuit also names as a defendant the Russian military intelligence service, the GRU, which has been accused by the U.S. government of orchestrating the hacks, as well as WikiLeaks, which published the DNC’s stolen emails, and the group’s founder Julian Assange.
The White House, the Russian Embassy, WikiLeaks and Assange had no immediate comment on Friday. A Manafort spokesman declined comment.
The lawsuit was also filed against Roger Stone, the longtime Trump confidante who claimed during the campaign that he was in contact with Assange.
The Trump advisers and associates have denied assisting Russia in its hacking campaign. Stone has denied any communication with Assange or advance knowledge of the document dumps by WikiLeaks, saying his comments about Assange were jokes or exaggerations.
The DNC lawsuit argues that the Russian government and the GRU violated a series of laws by orchestrating the secret intrusion into the Democrats’ computer systems, including statutes to protect trade secrets, prohibit wire tapping and prevent trespassing.
The party said the Trump defendants committed conspiracy through their interaction with Russian agents and their public encouragement of the hacking, with the campaign itself acting as a racketeering enterprise promoting illegal activity.
The complaint was filed on behalf of the party by the law firm of Cohen Milstein.
The suit contains previously undisclosed details, including that the specific date when it is believed theRussians breached the DNC computer system: July 27, 2015, according to forensic evidence cited in the filing.
The analysis shows the system was breached again on April 18, 2016. The first signs that hackers were siphoning documents and information from DNC systems on April 22. The suit notes that four days later, Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos was informed by Josef Mifsud, a London-based professor, that the Russians were in possession of thousands of emails that could be damaging to Clinton.
While unusual, a lawsuit of this type is not entirely unprecedented in that it has some similarity to a similar lawsuit that was filed during the height of the Watergate scandal. In that case, the DNC filed a lawsuit in 1972 against the Nixon campaign seeking damages related to the burglary at DNC headquarters in the Watergate complex. While the Nixon campaign fended off the lawsuit for the remaining two years of his Administration, the tactic proved to be at least somewhat successful in that it led to a settlement reached on the day that Nixon resigned in 1974 that resulted in his campaign paying the DNC $750,000 to settle the case. That being said, to say that this lawsuit is unique and unusual is something of an understatement and its far from clear that it will survive preliminary motions to dismiss the case never mind reach a state where DNC attorneys would be able to conduct pre-trial discovery against the Defendants and any relevant witnesses.
Notwithstanding this history, though, it’s hard to see this lawsuit as anything other than a blatantly political move on the part of Democrats designed to appease its own base, increase the legal pressures on the President and the Administration, and to attempt to rally the opposition to the President as we get closer to the midterm elections. Looking at it from a legal point of view, the Complaint alleges in its 66 pages, 233 numbered paragraphs, and 12 causes of action what essentially amounts to a conspiracy between Russia, certain Russian individuals and companies, Wikileaks, and people close to Donald Trump including Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, Roger Stone, George Papadopoulos, and Jared Kushner to gather and disseminate information detrimental to Hillary Clinton campaign and leak them to the media for the benefit of the Trump campaign. The claims themselves include charges of wire and computer fraud, conspiracy, and other claims arising under both Federal and state law. Additionally, the Complaint asserts a civil claim based on the Racketeer Influenced And Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act between and among the parties stemming from these actions.
The factual basis for the lawsuit should be familiar to anyone who has been following the Russia investigation even on a limited level. Pretty much every fact that has come out in the media, including the social media campaign that was at the center of Special Counsel Mueller’s indictment earlier this year of more than a dozen Russian individuals and companies, the hacking of the server of the Democratic National Committee and the email of Clinton confidante Anthony Podesta, the 2016 Trump Tower meeting between a Russian lawyer and several people at the top levels of the Trump campaign, the leaking of emails from the DNC and Podesta that often seemed to be specifically timed with important campaign events such as the release of the Access Hollywood tape, and other allegations. If nothing else, if you’re looking for a summary of all the bad news for the President that has come out over the past year related to the Russia investigation then you can get pretty quickly caught up by reading through the first 145 paragraphs of the Complaint.
In the end, though, that’s all this Complaint really amounts to, a bunch of allegations, many of which we already knew about, without the allegation of any definitive proof of collusion between the Trump campaign and either Russia or Wikileaks. As a legal matter, of course, the DNC is not required to lay out its entire case in the Complaint, but we already know from what’s in the news that there as yet no such definitive proof of the kind of collusion and coordination that the central legal claims of the Complaint depend on. Additionally, at the very least, a Plaintiff is required to allege sufficient facts to support its claims, and the Complaint strikes me as being particularly weak in this regard when it comes to connecting all of the dots of its allegations and tieing them together with factual allegations that could prove some kind of collusion. This, no doubt will be the focus of the initial response to the Complaint by the Defendants, or at least those that choose to respond to it. It’s unlikely, for example, that defendants such as the Russian Federation itself or the Russian individuals and companies will even bother to respond to the allegations or hire attorneys to make an appearance on their behalf in the litigation. The majority of the legal pushback, then, will come from the American Defendants to the lawsuit, and they will likely concentrate their initial responses on legal efforts to get the case dismissed before it can get anywhere near the pretrial discovery stage that Democrats are no doubt aiming for here since that would allow them to do things like deposing former Trump campaign officials and subpoena documents such as the President’s long-sought tax returns.
Not every Democratic elected official is behind this lawsuit. Congresswoman Jackie Speier of California called it “ill-conceived” in a cable news appearance yesterday, for example:
“I actually think this lawsuit is ill-conceived, and I’m not very supportive of it,” Speier said Friday. “I think we have a very serious criminal activity underway in this country by the Russians and possibly by those within the Trump campaign and to make this political is actually the wrong thing to be doing.”
“I’m not interested in a political tit-for-tat — I’m interested in getting to the truth, and if there is criminal conduct, holding people accountable,” she added.
“I think the interest in coordinating a conspiracy is something that we have been delving into, we are continuing to delve into it,” she continued. “I certainly think that Bob Mueller and the special counsel office has much more information than we have. And we will know soon enough. But I think this sidebar lawsuit is not in the interest of the American people.”
On the other side of the Capitol Building, Missouri Senator Clarie McCaskill, who faces re-election this year, called it a “silly distraction.” CNN’s chief political analyst Gloria Borger, meanwhile, called the entire thing a political stunt:
CNN’s chief political analyst Gloria Borger said on Friday the Democratic National Party’s lawsuit against Russia, the Trump campaign and Wikileaks is a “100% stunt” designed to “raise money.”
“They want to get in the act, they want to keep the story moving,” she said, speaking to host Brooke Baldwin about the newly-announced lawsuit regarding the 2016 election. “This is nothing new. Everyone has been — every Democrat, political Democrat has been charging that the Trump campaign was in collusion with Wikileaks, et cetera, et cetera.”
Borger believed the suit’s main and singular function was to help Democrats continue raising money ahead of the upcoming 2018 election.
“Honestly, it’s just a way to raise money,” she continued. “The Democrats haven’t been having trouble raising money. They’re raising gobs of money for their candidates this time around. I think this is just one more way to get into the act here. And continue what they’ve been doing all along.”
The truth behind the criticism of Speier and McCaskill and the analysis by Borger seems to me to be bolstered by this comment that DNC Chairman Tom Perez during the press conference announcing the lawsuit yesterday:
“I don’t know when Mueller will finish,” Mr. Perez said. “I’m very concerned about the run-up to the midterm elections.”
This seems to me to be a tacit admission by Perez that the lawsuit’s motivation is, in the end, political rather than legal. From a legal point of view, that could prove to be problematic in the pre-trial stages of the coming litigation when the Defendants will be seeking to have the Complaint dismissed for, among other grounds, failing to make claims upon which relief can be granted and failing to allege sufficient facts to support the conclusions the Complaint reaches. As I noted above, the Complaint is heavy with allegations but entirely lacking in proof regarding any real collusion between and among the parties in question. Obviously, there are a lot of conclusions one can draw in their own mind regarding how to connect the various dots that make up the things that happened from 2015 until Election Day 2016. However, there’s nothing definitive alleged that connects those dots alleged anywhere in the Complaint other than what amounts to assumptions and guesses. That doesn’t strike me as being legally sufficient, and certainly would not be enough to meet even the lower burden of proof that needs to be met in a civil action, and that suggests that this case is going to spend a long time being litigated with very little to show for it beyond the fact that it will appease the base.
Here’s the Complaint: