The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s lawsuit against Clinton and 47 others is a predictable mess

Former president Donald Trump arrives to speak at a rally in Ohio in June. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
7 min

From the very beginning of Donald Trump’s lawsuit against Hillary Clinton and a smattering of nearly 50 others, it becomes abundantly clear what this is about — and it’s not about winning a legal judgment.

“In the run-up to the 2016 Presidential Election, Hillary Clinton and her cohorts orchestrated an unthinkable plot — one that shocks the conscience and is an affront to this nation’s democracy,” the lawsuit, filed March 24, begins. It soon adds that the alleged plot was “so outrageous, subversive and incendiary that even the events of Watergate pale in comparison.”

In other words: This is a press release.

What the lawsuit lacks in subtlety, though, it more than makes up for in false claims, errors and dubious inferences.

The lawsuit contains a veritable smorgasbord of debunked and conspiratorial assertions about just how the Russia investigation came about. It’s clearly an effort to play into the emerging theories about what special counsel John Durham might be pursuing — i.e., that the Russia probe was not a product of FBI malfeasance, as Trump has long claimed, but rather that it’s something the FBI was duped into pursuing by nefarious Democrats.

But Trump’s legal team can’t shoot straight.

Before it even gets to the opening sentiments quoted above, the lawsuit stumbles through multiple typos. It repeatedly refers, including on the first page, to 10 anonymous people whose names might be “fictious.” (That spelling of fictitious is archaic, but the suit repeatedly uses “fictitious” when referring to unknown corporations.) It sues the law firm “Perkins Coie, LLC,” when Perkins Coie is an LLP. The lawsuit also sues “Phillipe Reines” rather than Clinton adviser Philippe Reines. It is at least the fourth lawsuit filed by Trump and his allies which features misspellings on the very first page.

(In fairness, I have misspelled Reines’s name before; I was not, however, suing him in a court of law.)

By Page 4, the lawsuit asserts that, upon learning there was no back-channel between the Trump campaign and a Russian bank, “the Defendants resorted to truly subversive measures — hacking servers at Trump Tower, Trump’s private apartment, and, most alarmingly, the White House.”

Trump and his allies have repeatedly claimed of late that new evidence reveals that Democrats hacked Trump’s White House. They made that claim even after it became clear, almost immediately, that the evidence pointed somewhere very different: The White House at issue was, in fact, Barack Obama’s. What’s more, the idea that this involved “hacking” at all is a pretty big stretch, as The Post’s Philip Bump recently summarized.

The lawsuit then returns to two of Trump’s favorite chestnuts:

  • “Special Counsel [Robert S.] Mueller [III] went on to exonerate Donald Trump and his campaign with his finding that there was no evidence of collusion with Russia.”
  • “The Mueller Report demonstrated that, after a two-year long investigation coming on the heels of a year-long FBI investigation, the Special Counsel found no evidence that Donald Trump or his campaign ever colluded with the Russian government to undermine the 2016 election.”

While Mueller did not find sufficient evidence of a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, he has made a point to emphasize — as he said in the report — that the report didn’t address collusion. What’s more, Mueller didn’t say there was “no evidence”; he instead said the evidence wasn’t “sufficient to charge any member of the campaign with taking part in a criminal conspiracy.”

And since then, a bipartisan report from the GOP-led Senate Intelligence Committee stated that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort had shared “sensitive internal polling data” and “campaign strategy” with a man it described as a “Russian intelligence officer,” Konstantin Kilimnik. The report called the relationship between Manafort and Kilimnik a “grave counterintelligence threat.”

Then, as the lawsuit proceeds to lay out the alleged plot, it zeros in on the summer of 2016, when Trump and Clinton were named their parties’ nominees:

That very same day [as Clinton’s nomination], a briefing from the U.S. intelligence community warned that it had intercepted communications concerning the “alleged approval by Hillary Clinton … of a proposal from one of her foreign policy advisors to vilify Donald Trump by stirring up a scandal claiming interference by Russian security services.”

This traces to a letter released by Trump’s director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, in 2020. Ratcliffe’s letter cited contemporaneous 2016 notes from then-CIA Director John Brennan which it said showed that “Brennan subsequently briefed President Obama and other senior national security officials on the intelligence, including the ‘alleged approval by Hillary Clinton on July 26, 2016 of a proposal from one of her foreign policy advisers to vilify Donald Trump by stirring up a scandal claiming interference by Russian security services.’ ”

The lawsuit goes on to cite another supposedly significant piece of evidence on this front: A three-page Sept. 7, 2016, memo disclosed by the Washington Times in which, in the Trump legal team’s summary, “the CIA informed then FBI Director James Comey that the Clinton Campaign was planning to blame ‘collusion’ between Trump and the Russian government.”

All of which sounds pretty bad — until you realize that whatever effort Clinton had launched privately by those dates actually came after her campaign was pointing to these things quite publicly. By July 24, her campaign manager had already appeared on TV and claimed that Russia had leaked the Democratic National Committee emails to help Trump, suggestively adding that Trump was steering the GOP platform in a suspiciously Russia-friendly direction.

As for the Sept. 7 CIA memo, it’s not clear where the lawsuit’s quoted word, “collusion,” comes from; the Washington Times story doesn’t even use it. The story said merely that, according to the CIA memo, Clinton “had approved a plan to blame Russian computer hacking on rival Donald Trump.” And again, the timeline is important. This came more than a month after Trump infamously — and very publicly — urged Russia to find Clinton’s emails. (He later claimed he was joking.) By this point, Clinton and her campaign had for several weeks been accusing Trump of, at the very least, abetting Russia’s hacking.

Finally, there’s another well-recycled claim: that, in FISA applications to surveil former Trump campaign aide Carter Page, the FBI hid the political motivations of those who had supplied its evidence. It notes Comey confirmed in 2018 testimony that the sources of the Steele dossier were “political actors who opposed Donald Trump.”

“Yet, none of that information was disclosed in the FISA applications in October, 2016, or on any of the renewals,” the lawsuit claims.

It’s fair to argue that those FISA applications should have more directly noted the Clinton campaign’s and the DNC’s ties to the Steele dossier, but they did not fail to broach political motivations. As Justice Department inspector general Michael Horowitz stated in a 2019 report, a footnote on the FISA applications stated that “Steele was hired … to conduct research regarding [Trump’s] ties to Russia and that the FBI ‘speculates’ that this U.S. person was likely looking for information that could be used to discredit the Trump campaign.”

None of this, of course, addresses the merits of Trump and his lawyers’ overall argument — or what the argument would be, if it weren’t so shoddily constructed. The argument seems to be: A political candidate accused their opponent of something bad and sought opposition research to back it up. This information was shared with law enforcement. Law enforcement then investigated that something, and later multiple reports by both a special counsel and a Senate committee — and Trump’s own public comments — seemed to confirm the accusation was at least worth a healthy look.

Even so, this obviously didn’t change the result of the 2016 election. But Trump has a 2024 election to consider.