The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democratic Party sues Russia, Trump campaign and WikiLeaks alleging 2016 campaign conspiracy

The Democratic National Committee on April 20 filed a lawsuit against the Russian government, the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

The Democratic National Committee filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit Friday against the Russian government, the Trump campaign and the WikiLeaks organization alleging a far-reaching conspiracy to disrupt the 2016 campaign and tilt the election to Donald Trump.

The complaint, filed in federal district court in Manhattan, alleges that top Trump campaign officials conspired with the Russian government and its military spy agency to hurt Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and help Trump by hacking the computer networks of the Democratic Party and disseminating stolen material found there.

“During the 2016 presidential campaign, Russia launched an all-out assault on our democracy, and it found a willing and active partner in Donald Trump’s campaign,” DNC Chairman Tom Perez said in a statement.

President Trump on April 18 dismissed allegations that his campaign colluded with Russia in the 2016 presidential election. (Video: The Washington Post)

“This constituted an act of unprecedented treachery: the campaign of a nominee for President of the United States in league with a hostile foreign power to bolster its own chance to win the presidency,” he said.

The suit asserts that the Russian hacking campaign — combined with Trump associates’ contacts with Russia and the campaign’s public cheerleading of the hacks — amounted to an illegal conspiracy to interfere in the election and caused serious damage to the Democratic Party.

Read the DNC lawsuit against Russia and the Trump campaign

Senate investigators and prosecutors for special counsel Robert S. Mueller III are still looking into whether Trump associates coordinated with any Russian efforts. Last month, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee said they had found no evidence that President Trump and his affiliates colluded with Russian officials to sway the election or that the Kremlin sought to help Trump — a conclusion rejected by the panel’s Democrats.

In a statement, Trump Campaign Manager Brad Parscale said the Democrats’ lawsuit was without merit and likely to be dismissed.

“This is a sham lawsuit about a bogus Russian collusion claim filed by a desperate, dysfunctional, and nearly insolvent Democratic Party,” he said. “With the Democrats’ conspiracy theories against the President’s campaign evaporating as quickly as the failing DNC’s fundraising, they’ve sunk to a new low to raise money, especially among small donors who have abandoned them.”

The lawsuit echoes a similar legal tactic that the Democratic Party used during the Watergate scandal. In 1972, the DNC sued President Richard Nixon’s reelection committee seeking $1 million in damages for the break-in at Democratic headquarters in the Watergate building.

The suit was denounced at the time by Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, who called it a case of “sheer demagoguery” by the DNC. But the civil action brought by the DNC’s chairman, Lawrence F. O’Brien, was successful, yielding a $750,000 settlement from the Nixon campaign that was reached on the day in 1974 that he left office.

Nick Akerman, a former Watergate prosecutor who specializes in computer-fraud cases, said he thought the Democrats’ suit had merit and, despite predictions from Trump-allied lawyers, was unlikely to go away anytime soon.

“There is no way it’s going to be dismissed,” said Akerman, a partner in the New York office of the Dorsey & Whitney law firm. “At least not on the computer-fraud part of the case, which is really the heart of it. The Democrats have every right to bring this suit as they are aggrieved. My question is: What took them so long?”

If allowed to proceed, the lawsuit would give the Democrats a chance to seek internal documents and testimony from the Trump campaign to help them learn more about interactions with Russia during the race.

Parscale noted that the Trump campaign, too, would be allowed to conduct discovery. He promised that the campaign would use the process to probe management decisions at the DNC, as well as the party’s involvement with commissioning the Trump dossier, a research document produced by a former British spy that alleged the Trump campaign conspired with Russia. Late Friday, Trump made a similar point, tweeting that the suit provided “good news in that we will now counter” for information from the Democrats including information from the party’s servers about a range of topics including Hillary Clinton’s emails.

Suing a foreign country may present legal challenges for the Democrats, in part because other nations have immunity from most U.S. lawsuits.

The lawsuit argues that Russia is not entitled to sovereign immunity in this case because “the DNC claims arise out of Russia’s trespass on to the DNC’s private servers . . . in order to steal trade secrets and commit economic espionage.”

The suit seeks millions of dollars in compensation to offset damage it claims the party suffered from the hacks. The DNC argues that the cyberattack undermined its ability to communicate with voters, collect donations and operate effectively as its employees faced personal harassment and, in some cases, death threats.

The suit also seeks an acknowledgment from the defendants that they conspired to infiltrate the Democrats’ computers, steal information and disseminate it to influence the election.

To support its case, the lawsuit offers a detailed narrative of the DNC hacks, as well as episodes in which key Trump aides are alleged to have been told Russia held damaging information about Clinton.

Inside Trump’s financial ties to Russia and his unusual flattery of Vladimir Putin

Russia engaged in a “brazen attack on U.S. soil” the party alleges, a campaign that began with the hack of its computer networks in 2015 and 2016. Trump campaign officials received repeated outreach from Russia, the suit says.

“Rather than report these repeated messages and communications that Russia intended to interfere in the U.S. election, the Trump campaign and its agents gleefully welcomed Russia’s help,” the party argues.

Ultimately, Trump’s associates entered into an agreement with Russian agents “to promote Donald Trump’s candidacy through illegal means,” the suit concludes.

It does not name Trump as a defendant. Instead, it targets aides who, during the campaign, met with people believed to be affiliated with Russia. The aides targeted include the president’s son Donald Trump Jr., his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, onetime campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Manafort’s deputy during the campaign, 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 emails stolen from the DNC, and the group’s founder, Julian Assange.

Representatives for a number of the defendants named in the lawsuit, including the Russian Embassy, WikiLeaks and Assange, did not respond to requests for comment Friday. A Manafort spokesman declined to comment.

The lawsuit was also filed against Roger Stone, a longtime Trump confidant who claimed during the campaign that he was in contact with Assange.

Roger Stone claimed contact with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in 2016, according to two associates

The Trump advisers and associates have denied assisting Russia in a 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.

In an email, Stone rejected the suit as “a left-wing conspiracy theory dressed up as a law-suit.”

A few prominent Democrats also criticized the legal action.

David Axelrod, a former adviser to President Barack Obama, tweeted late Friday that the filing was “spectacularly ill-timed” and could abet the White House strategy of portraying Mueller’s criminal probe as partisan. “Everyone should chill out and let Mueller do his job,” Axelrod wrote.

The DNC argues that the Russian government and the GRU’s secret intrusion into the Democrats’ computer systems violated laws that include those protecting trade secrets, prohibiting wire tapping and preventing 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 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 the specific date when it is believed the Russians 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 were spotted on April 22. The suit notes that four days later, on April 26, 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.

Top campaign officials knew of Trump adviser’s outreach to Russia

The defendants in the suit include Papadopoulos and Mifsud, as well as Aras and Emin Agalarov, the wealthy Russian father and son who hosted the Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow in 2013. Trump, who owned the pageant, attended the event.

The Agalarovs played a role in arranging a meeting for a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower in New York in 2016, at which Donald Trump Jr. had expected to be given damaging information about Clinton.

Scott Balber, an attorney for the Agalarovs, said the allegations about his clients were “frivolous” and “a publicity stunt.”

“They had absolutely nothing to do with any alleged hacking of any Democratic computer system or any interference in the U.S. election,” he said.

Lawyers for Papadopoulos declined to comment, citing their client’s ongoing cooperation with the special counsel.

“It is our hope that when all the facts are known, the plaintiff will voluntarily dismiss Mr. Papadopoulos from the complaint,” said the lawyers, Thomas Breen and Robert Stanley, in a written statement.

The lawsuit also describes how the Soviet Union paid for Trump to travel to Moscow in the 1980s and alleges that his personal and professional ties to Russia helped foster the conspiracy.

The DNC’s lawyers wrote that “long standing personal professional and financial ties to Russia and numerous individuals linked to the Russian government provided fertile ground for a conspiracy between the defendants to interfere in the 2016 elections.”

The lawsuit also details the history of Manafort and Gates, who worked for Russia-friendly factions in Ukraine before joining the Trump campaign. Prosecutors have said Manafort and Gates were in contact in 2016 with Konstantin Kilimnik, a former linguist in the Russian army whom the FBI has alleged had ties to Russian intelligence.

Alice Crites contributed to this report.