Former President Trump suffered yet another legal setback on Thursday, when a U.S. district judge ordered him and his lead attorney to pay almost $1 million in costs and fees to numerous defendants, including Hillary Clinton, after a Trump suit the judge found to be without merit.
The stark finding appears to have had an instant result — a rare Trump retreat on a related matter.
The following day, the former president’s legal team withdrew a separate action against New York Attorney General Letitia James before the same judge.
The Thursday judgement came in response to a suit Trump had filed in March 2022 against Clinton, former FBI Director James Comey, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), former FBI figures Peter Strzok and Lisa Page and many others.
At its core, Trump accused the defendants of “a malicious conspiracy” against him, especially with regards to allegations of Russian collusion.
Taking the lead in the case was Trump attorney Alina Habba.
The judge, Donald M. Middlebrooks, was nominated to his current position by President Clinton in 1997.
Middlebrooks’s 46-page ruling was scathing enough to put even Trump on the back foot.
Here are the five sharpest jabs from the bench against the former president.
“This case should never have been brought. It’s inadequacy as a legal claim was evident from the start. No reasonable lawyer would have filed it. … Thirty-one individuals and entities were needlessly harmed in order to dishonestly advance a political narrative.”
There was no warming-up or throat-clearing from Judge Middlebrooks, who began his ruling with the words above.
He went on to note the background of the case and how rapidly Clinton and other defendants had “identified substantial and fundamental factual and legal flaws” in the Trump team’s original claim.
The judge added that an amended complaint had been filed by the Trump team in June 2022, three months after the inception of the case. The new and supposedly improved version “failed to cure any of the defects” in the original filing, Middlebrooks writes.
Middlebrooks intriguingly also cites a September 2022 interview Habba gave to Sean Hannity in which she claimed Trump encouraged her to drop the case at an earlier stage.
“And I said no, we have to fight,” Habba told Hannity.
She may come to rue that decision.
“Here we are confronted with a lawsuit that should never have been filed, which was completely frivolous, both factually and legally, and which was brought in bad faith for an improper purpose. Mr. Trump is a prolific and sophisticated litigant who is repeatedly using the courts to seek revenge on political adversaries. He is the mastermind of strategic abuse of the judicial process and he cannot be seen as a litigant blindly following the advice of a lawyer.”
This is a key passage in Middlebrooks’s rationale for why Trump personally should be sanctioned.
The judge cites other instances where Trump pursued cases against real or perceived adversaries including Twitter and CNN.
Middlebrooks’s point is that Trump deserves to have harsh treatment meted out to him because — in the judge’s view — the former president has a long record of trying to weaponize or clog up the legal system to besmirch or intimidate opponents, or for publicity purposes.
“The 819 paragraphs of the 186-page Amended Complaint are filled with immaterial, conclusory facts not connected to any particular cause of action. Consider the incendiary charge that Mr. Comey, the Director of the FBI, conspired with Ms. Clinton to maliciously prosecute him. Leaving aside the fact that Mr. Trump was never prosecuted, examine the allegations in the Amended Complaint pertaining to Mr. Comey. …
[They] do not allege that Mr. Comey initiated an investigation of Mr. Trump, much less a prosecution. And the implausible claim that Mr. Comey conspired with Ms. Clinton, given the impact of his announcements on her 2016 campaign, not only lacks substance but is categorically absurd.”
In addition to his complaints about Trump trying to use the legal system for extra-legal purposes, Middlebrooks is evidently irked by the approach of the former president’s legal team.
The section about Comey goes into considerable detail about what Middlebrooks clearly considers pointless meanderings — including details of Trump’s firing of Comey as director of the FBI.
The shoulder-shrugging dismissal of any cooperation between Comey and the Clinton campaign is alluding to events late in the 2016 campaign.
Comey announced in the final days of that contest that the FBI had reopened its investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of State in President Obama’s administration.
Comey’s public disclosure is to this day blamed by some Clinton partisans for her narrow loss in the election.
“The plaintiff consistently misrepresented and cherry-picked portions of public reports and filings to support a false factual narrative. Often the report or filing actually contradicted his allegations. It happened too often to be accidental; its purpose was political, not legal. Factual allegations were made without any evidentiary support in circumstances where falsity is evident.”
Middlebrooks here cites claims from the Trump team including the assertion that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report “went on to exonerate” Trump from any suggestion of Russian collusion.
In fact, as Middlebrooks notes, Mueller’s conclusions were a good deal more nuanced and equivocal than this.
“While perhaps acceptable as a cable news talking point, that allegation [of exoneration] is neither an accurate nor fair reading of the Mueller Report,” he writes.
“Despite an affidavit from Mr. Dolan saying he lived in Virginia, and the fact that service upon him occurred there, the Amended Complaint claimed he lived in New York. The Plaintiff’s lawyers’ excuse: There are a lot of Dolans—some of them live in New York.”
This passage refers to Charles Dolan, a Democratic strategist who was also in the Trump team’s sights.
But the judge’s point is emblematic of a kind of weary exasperation that permeates his ruling.
In another section, he draws casual attention to a typo in one Trump team filing, which laments false allegations of “Russian collision.”