A federal judge in frank terms Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) against key members of the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks over hacked DNC documents, saying they “did not participate in any wrongdoing in obtaining the materials in the first place” and therefore bore no legal liability for disseminating the information.
The ruling came as Democrats increasingly have sought to tie the Trump team to illegal activity in Russia, in spite of former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s findings that the campaign in fact refused multiple offers by Russians to involve them in hacking and disinformation efforts.
President Trump tweeted a response to the ruling, commenting on the fact that the decision was “really big stuff,” especially because of the fact that the judge who made the ruling was appointed by former President Clinton.
The DNC had asserted in court filings that the Trump team’s meetings “with persons connected to the Russian government during the time that the Russian GRU agents were stealing the DNC’s information” were “circumstantial evidence” that they were conspiring with the Russians to “steal and disseminate the DNC’s materials.”
The suit sought to hold the Trump team and other defendants listed for the theft of the DNC’s information in accordance with various Virginia and federal statutes.
However, Judge Koeltl, sitting in the Southern District of New York, wrote in his 81-page opinion Tuesday that the DNC’s argument was “entirely divorced” from the factual record in the case.
The DNC first filed its suit in April 2018, and the defendants responded that the First Amendment legally protected the dissemination of stolen materials.
“In short, the DNC raises a number of connections and communications between the defendants and with people loosely connected to the Russian Federation, but at no point does the DNC allege any facts … to show that any of the defendants — other than the Russian Federation — participated in the theft of the DNC’s information,” Koeltl said.
“Nor does the DNC allege that the defendants ever agreed to help the Russian Federation steal the DNC’s documents,” he added.
The DNC claimed the defendants illegally compromised their trade secrets contained in some of the stolen documents — including donor lists and strategies. But, the judge said, any such claim to trade secrecy was lost when the documents became public in the first place, and in any event, the newsworthiness of the matter trumped the trade secrecy issue.
“If Wikileaks could be held liable for publishing documents concerning the DNC’s political financial and voter-engagement strategies simply because the DNC labels them ‘secret’ and trade secrets, then so could any newspaper or other media outlet,” the judge wrote. That, he said, would elevate a privacy interest impermissibly over the First Amendment rights of people and media outlets to disseminate matters of “the highest public concern.”
“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,” DNC spokesperson Adrienne Watson said.
Then DNC suit also went after the Russian government, which seems more like a publicity stunt. Koeltl noted that federal law prohibited suits against foreign governments except in highly specific circumstances. Koeltl nevertheless acknowledged that the Russian government “undoubtedly” was involved in the hacking.
Koeltl dismissed the suit with prejudice which means that it had a substantive legal defect and could not be refiled. An appeal remained possible.