WASHINGTON — Taking a page from its response to the Watergate break-in, the Democratic National Committee filed suit on Friday against President Donald Trump's campaign, the Russian government and WikiLeaks for allegedly engaging in a conspiracy to damage the Democratic Party during the 2016 presidential race.
The DNC is seeking recompense for what it says was millions of dollars in damages from Russia’s hacking of its internal emails, which were then published by WikiLeaks, with the encouragement of then-candidate Trump and his campaign.
The civil complaint, filed in federal district court in Manhattan on Friday, is unrelated to the criminal investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller, as well as congressional investigations into Russian meddling.
But the DNC’s lawsuit could force the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks to reveal internal communications about the hack through the legal discovery process.
“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 Chair Tom Perez said in a statement. "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."
Trump has repeatedly denied any collusion with the Russian government and his campaign manager summarily dismissed the lawsuit Friday as a "conspiracy theory," saying the discovery process would backfire on Democrats by airing their dirty laundry.
“This is a sham lawsuit about a bogus Russian collusion claim filed by a desperate, dysfunctional, and nearly insolvent Democratic Party,” said Brad Parscale, who is running Trump's reelection campaign. "While this lawsuit is frivolous and will be dismissed, if the case goes forward, the DNC has created an opportunity for us to take aggressive discovery into their claims of ‘damages’ and uncover their acts of corruption for the American people."
Trump himself tweeted about the lawsuit late Friday night.
The civil suit follows a playbook the DNC successfully deployed in 1972 after Republican operatives broke into the party's headquarters in the Watergate office complex. Allies of President Richard Nixon initially dismissed the $1 million suit as frivolous, but the president's re-election campaign later settled for $750,000 on the day Nixon left office, according to The Washington Post, which first reported Friday's lawsuit.
The DNC has retained the law firm Cohen-Milstein, which has been involved in settlements for large data breaches in the past, including one against health insurer Anthem, which affected 80 million people.
After the 2016 hack, the DNC spent millions to replace IT equipment, hire outside cybersecurity consultants and otherwise clean up the damage. Beyond the financial cost, the publication of the hacked emails forced the party’s chairwoman to resign, infuriated donors, traumatized staffers and contributed to the party’s loss of the White House.
“They successfully hacked the Democratic Party in 2016 and they will be back. We must prevent future attacks on our democracy, and that’s exactly what we’re doing today,” said Perez, a former top official in the Obama Justice Department. “This is not partisan, it’s patriotic. If the occupant of the Oval Office won’t protect our democracy, Democrats will.”
The DNC's 66-page complaint lays out in the detailed the alleged conspiracy among Trump, WikiLeaks and hackers working for the Russian government. “Each defendant knowingly aided, abetted, encouraged, induced, instigated, contributed and assisted” the hack and subsequent publication of the emails, the complaint alleges.
The lawsuit is unusual in several ways, especially because it names foreign organizations that would be difficult to bring to court in the U.S.
Foreign governments are generally immune from U.S. prosecution, but the DNC claims this suit falls into one of the exemptions to that law, since the hack amounted to the Russian government trespassing on the committee's private property.