(Bloomberg) -- The Democratic National Committee sued Russia, the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks claiming widespread interference in the 2016 election as part of a "brazen attack on American democracy."
The civil lawsuit could force President Donald Trump’s 2016 staffers to answer questions under oath about campaign activities. Evidence gathered by the DNC could be made public in court filings and at a trial -- in contrast to information obtained through Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference, which might remain secret.
Many of the allegations reflect conclusions of major U.S. intelligence agencies and come from guilty pleas and legal filings by Mueller, who is investigating links between Russia and the campaign. The suit names Trump associates including Jared Kushner, Roger Stone and Donald Trump Jr., along with aides prosecuted by Mueller, signaling the DNC intends to cast a wide net.
“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. “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.”
With Trump threatening to fire Mueller and members of Congress resistant to the probe, the lawsuit, if it survives the defendants’ likely dismissal bid, offers an opportunity for Democrats to push forward with their own investigation.
The suit is being filed now because the DNC learned in April 2016 that it had been hacked and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act has a two-year statute of limitations, a person with knowledge of the case said. The person, who asked not to be identified, said the committee and its lawyers have been engaged in a lengthy information-gathering process.
The complaint, filed Friday in Manhattan federal court, includes claims of computer fraud, trespass and racketeering and seeks unspecified damages, along with a declaration that the campaign, Russia and WikiLeaks conspired to steal information.
Trump said he welcomed the suit by the “obstructionist” Democrats. “This can be good news in that we will now counter for the DNC Server that they refused to give to the FBI,” he tweeted.
Beginning in mid-2016, WikiLeaks released almost 20,000 emails from inside the DNC that showed, among other things, how staffers had favored Hillary Clinton during her primary campaign against Bernie Sanders -- prompting Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida to resign as committee head. Later in the campaign, WikiLeaks released tens of thousands of emails from the Gmail account of John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman.
The disclosures proved to be a source of embarrassment for the Clinton campaign, muddying its message. WikiLeaks began releasing Podesta’s emails almost immediately after Trump was heard boasting of lewd conduct on a 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape.
The Trump campaign called the lawsuit “frivolous” and “without merit.”
“This is a sham lawsuit about a bogus Russian collusion claim filed by a desperate, dysfunctional, and nearly insolvent Democratic Party,” Brad Parscale, the manager of Trump’s reelection campaign, said in a statement.
Though the campaign said it expects the case to be dismissed, Parscale said if it moves ahead, their lawyers will engage in “aggressive discovery into their claims of ‘damages’ and uncover their acts of corruption for the American people.” Among the issues the campaign would pursue, he said, are the DNC’s role in funding an unverified dossier alleging links between Russia and Trump, as well as management decisions made by top Democrats.
While grassroots energy on the left has boosted Democratic candidates and prompted a flood of new candidates to run for office, the DNC has struggled. It raised $67 million in 2017, half as much as the Republican National Committee. Some Democrats are also still fighting over whether the DNC took steps to favor Clinton over Sanders, another issue Parscale said the Trump campaign’s lawyers would try to examine in discovery.
Accusations of Hacking
The Democratic suit accuses Russian intelligence of hacking into its computers, penetrating its telephone systems and gaining access to tens of thousands of documents and emails. The Russians used the information to destabilize the U.S. political environment, denigrate Clinton and support Trump, according to the complaint.
The Trump campaign "gleefully welcomed Russia’s help," sought its illegal assistance and secretly communicated with individuals tied to the Russian government, the complaint says. They also shared it with WikiLeaks, according to the complaint.
"As stolen DNC information was strategically released into the public sphere, then-candidate Trump openly praised the illegal disseminations and encouraged Russia to continue its violations of U.S. law through its ongoing hacking campaign," according to the complaint.
The DNC is represented by Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, a Washington firm perhaps best known for bringing class-action lawsuits against corporations.
The case names more than a dozen entities or individuals as defendants, including the Russian Federation and an intelligence operative known as Guccifer 2.0. The DNC also sued WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and ex-campaign chief Paul Manafort, who now faces federal money-laundering charges, and his aide Richard Gates, who pleaded guilty and is cooperating in Mueller’s probe.
Foreign governments are generally protected from U.S. lawsuits under the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act, which bans almost all such cases. But there are exceptions. The DNC says Russia isn’t entitled to immunity because the claims stem from a trespass on its servers to steal trade secrets and commit economic espionage.
According to the complaint, the scheme "inflicted profound damage" on the DNC by undermining its effort to communicate “values and vision" and by creating discord within the party. The hacks led to a "dramatic drop" in gifts as donors grew concerned their information might be stolen, according to the complaint.
“The Democratic National Committee was the first major target of the Russian attack on our democracy, and I strongly believe that every individual who helped carry it out -– foreign or domestic -- should be held accountable,” Wasserman Schultz said in a statement.
The lawsuit isn’t the first to allege Russian interference. Two Democratic Party supporters and a former DNC staffer sued the Trump campaign and Stone last year, accusing them of conspiring with Russian operatives to publish information taken from the DNC on WikiLeaks. The case is pending.
The case is Democratic National Committee v. the Russian Federation, 18-cv-3501, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).
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