Judge Dismisses DNC Lawsuit Alleging Trump Campaign Conspired With Russia
A Federal Judge in Washington has dismissed a lawsuit filed by the DNC alleging a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election.
A Federal District Court Judge in Washington, D.C. has dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Democratic National Committee against the Trump campaign, the President and other officials linked to the campaign, Wikileaks, and a number of Russian officials alleging a conspiracy to fix the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election:
WASHINGTON — A federal judge in Manhattan on Monday dismissed a lawsuit by the Democratic National Committee that had accused President Trump’s 2016 campaign, WikiLeaks and Russia of illegally conspiring to damage Hillary Clinton’s presidential run.
The Russian government was clearly “the primary wrongdoer” for hacking into Democratic computers and funneling purloined documents to WikiLeaks to disseminate, found Judge John G. Koeltl of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. But as a foreign sovereign, he wrote, Russia was immune from any liability.
Judge Koeltl ruled that the First Amendment protected the actions of WikiLeaks in publishing the documents. The same protections covered Trump campaign officials, who did not release any stolen documents but were eager to benefit from their publication, he found.
“There is a significant legal distinction between stealing documents and disclosing documents that someone else had stolen previously,” Judge Koeltl wrote. Like a news outlet, he said, WikiLeaks could not be held liable for releasing the documents so long as it did not “participate in any wrongdoing in obtaining the materials in the first place.”
The judge’s ruling came several months after the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, concluded his investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. The inquiry did not find evidence to establish a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia’s effort to influence the election results.
More from The Washington Post:
NEW YORK — Democrats’ claims that President Donald Trump’s campaign conspired with Russia were tossed out Tuesday by a judge who noted there were no allegations that anyone from the campaign stole documents from the Democratic National Committee.
The lawsuit brought by the committee alleged that Trump’s campaign conspired with Russia, WikiLeaks, Trump’s son-in-law and others. Trump’s campaign and lawyers for the other defendants denied the allegations.
U.S. District Judge John G. Koeltl said Russia was “undoubtably” the primary wrongdoer in the alleged criminal enterprise, but the country can’t be sued in U.S. courts except in special circumstances not present in this case.
Meanwhile, he said the actions of the Trump campaign and others were protected by the First Amendment.
“In sum, the DNC does not allege any facts to show plausibly that any of the defendants, other than the Russia Federation, had any role in hacking the DNC’s computers or stealing its information,” Koeltl wrote. “It attributes that conduct only to the Russian Federation.
“And the DNC does not dispute that the documents were of public importance. Therefore, the First Amendment protects the publication of those stolen documents,” the judge said.
The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the American Civil Liberties Union had submitted written arguments supporting defendant WikiLeaks’ request that the lawsuit be tossed.
In support of his findings, Koeltl cited the Pentagon Papers case in which the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that The New York Times and the Washington Post were constitutionally protected when they published stories about a top-secret study that revealed the U.S. government misled the public about the Vietnam War.
Adrienne Watson, the DNC’s deputy communications director, said in an email that the DNC is still reviewing the ruling.
“At first glance, this opinion raises serious concerns about our protections from foreign election interference and the theft of private property to advance the interests of our enemies,” Watson said.
“At a time when the Trump administration and Republican leaders in Congress are ignoring warnings from the president’s own intelligence officials about foreign interference in the 2020 election, this should be of concern to anyone who cares about our democracy and the sanctity of our elections,” Watson added.
Not surprisingly, President Trump celebrated the outcome on Twitter when it was handed down:
While unusual, a lawsuit of this type is not without precedent. It has at least some similarity to a civil lawsuit that the DNC filed 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’s where the similarity ends, though. Unlike the Watergate case, there was no direct evidence of collusion or conspiracy between the Trump campaign and either Wikileaks or officials connected to Russia, and even the Mueller investigation was unable to find any such evidence.
Given the lack of evidence and even the lack of any allegation in the Complaint that such evidence existed, it’s difficult to see the lawsuit as anything other than a blatantly political move on the DNC’s part as well as a method to increase the legal pressure on the Administration. 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.
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’s 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. What it lacks, though, are factual allegations that would have supported anything other than the outcome we saw in this case.
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, as Judge Koetel found, 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.
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 appeased the base.
Given all of this, it seems clear that Judge Koetel, who was appointed to his position by President Clinton in 1994, got this matter right. Given the facts that we are aware of, most of which are set forth in the Complaint, there simply isn’t sufficient evidence of a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and either Wikileaks or Russia to meet even the “more likely than not” standard that applies in a civil suit. Perhaps the evidence exists out there somewhere, but that’s just speculation at this point and a lawsuit like this can’t be allowed to proceed. If that evidence develops in the future, then a new lawsuit can be drafted. As things stand now, though, allowing this case to proceed forward would have been a waste of judicial and legal resources.
Here’s the Complaint: