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- Donald Trump said litigation against him is meant to “defeat” him ahead of 2024.
- Judges have repeatedly slammed Trump for using lawsuits “to advance a political narrative.”
- A judge last week sanctioned him and his lawyer Alina Habba with a $1 million fine.
Former President Donald Trump is trotting out a new argument against everyone suing him: They’re trying to distract him.
In a deposition taken in October and unsealed this month, Trump lashed out at the attorney interviewing him. His perceived enemies were trying to “defeat” him by keeping him busy, said Trump, who has announced he’ll run for president in 2024.
“Keep Trump busy, because this is the way you defeat him, to keep him busy with litigation,” Trump testified in the deposition, speaking in the third person.
The deposition was taken for a lawsuit brought by the writer E. Jean Carroll, who has alleged that Trump raped her in the 1990s and defamed her by calling her a liar when she went public with her claims. Portions of the deposition were unsealed earlier this month.
Elsewhere in the deposition, Trump said he believed Carroll and her lawyer, Roberta Kaplan, were “somehow aligned with Hillary Clinton.” When pressed by Kaplan about his claims that the litigation was political in nature, Trump testified he did not have “any documents indicating that she was pursuing a political agenda” and that he made the claim because “somebody had mentioned it.”
This isn’t the first time Trump has cast litigation against him as politically motivated. He’s used the term “witch hunt” to describe *deep breath* the Manhattan district attorney’s investigation into the Trump Organization, which resulted in convictions at a jury trial; the ongoing New York attorney general office’s investigation and 220-page lawsuit into his company’s finances; the former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the links between his 2016 campaign and Russia, which found many; and the ongoing Justice Department investigation into him keeping classified government documents at Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach, Florida, estate.
In a decision handed down Thursday night, a federal judge in Florida said the opposite was true. US District Judge Donald M. Middlebrooks said that Trump has a “pattern of misusing the courts to serve political purposes.”
“Mr. Trump’s deliberate use of a frivolous lawsuit for an improper purpose constitutes bad faith,” Middlebrooks wrote in his ruling. “And the behavior is not unique, but part of a plan, or at least a playbook.”
A federal judge said one of Trump’s lawsuits was ‘drafted to advance a political narrative’
Middlebrooks fined Trump and his attorney Alina Habba nearly $1 million for a frivolous lawsuit filed against Hillary Clinton, the Democratic National Committee, the former FBI director James Comey, and a smattering of other people and entities that Trump harbors grudges against.
Over 46 scathing pages, the judge described how the lawsuit made no sense on its own terms and constituted “abusive litigation tactics.”
The lawsuit’s real purpose, he wrote, was a “deliberate attempt to harass” that was “drafted to advance a political narrative” rather than “address legal harm.”
“This case should never have been brought,” Middlebrooks wrote. “Its inadequacy as a legal claim was evident from the start. No reasonable lawyer would have filed it. Intended for a political purpose, none of the counts of the amended complaint stated a cognizable legal claim.”
Lawyers who do Trump’s bidding run the risk of getting into hot water themselves.
Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen famously pleaded guilty to criminal charges for arranging hush-money payments to women who said they had affairs with the mogul before the 2016 election. The conviction stripped Cohen of the ability to practice law.
Trump lawyers Michael Madaio, left, and Alina Habba, center, leaving Manhattan Supreme Court on April 25, 2022.
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A December analysis from Insider found that 16 attorneys have been sanctioned for lawsuits filed on Trump’s behalf, including Rudy Giuliani and a host of other attorneys who pushed conspiracy theories about the 2020 election.
Among Trump’s large team of lawyers and legal advisors, Habba may run the greatest risk of being sanctioned.
She is handling many of Trump’s most personal cases. Some have been successful, such as a settlement with Summer Zervos, who had accused Trump of sexual misconduct; the settlement of a case brought by protesters who said they were beaten up by his security guards outside Trump Tower; and dismissals of lawsuits brought by Mary Trump and Michael Cohen. She and her law partner Michael Madaio are also defending Trump in Carroll’s litigation against him.
Habba has also acted as Trump’s attack dog in the courts. She’s sued CNN, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and the Pulitzer board on his behalf.
As Middlebrooks pointed out in his sanctions order, those cases have a political flavor.
Trump touted several of those lawsuits to ask his supporters for donations, leading Middlebrooks to remark that the former president was “using the courts as a stage set for political theater and grievance.”
Habba personally advises Trump’s MAGA political-action committee, and public filings show her firm has been paid more than $2 million in fees from Trump’s Save America PAC.
Another judge threatened sanctions over ‘frivolous litigation’
There are signs Trump may finally be rethinking his litigation strategy.
Hours after Middlebrooks’ sanctions order, Trump withdrew a separate lawsuit against the New York state attorney general, Letitia James. The lawsuit, filed in a federal court in Florida, sought to halt a lawsuit James filed in New York against the Trump Organization alleging a pattern of financial misconduct over the course of decades.
That lawsuit also landed in front of Middlebrooks. He hasn’t ruled on it yet, but in his sanctions order last week, he made it clear that he took a dim view of the lawsuit against James.
New York State Attorney General Letitia James.
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Middlebrooks drew from comments made by a New York judge, Arthur Engoron, who’s overseeing the James lawsuit and has spent years overseeing litigation related to the Trump Organization’s efforts to slow her investigation. Engoron had repeatedly slapped down the Trump family’s efforts to squirm out of handing over documents and sitting for depositions and has been repeatedly backed up by appeal courts. At one point, he found Donald Trump to be in contempt of court and fined him $10,000 a day until he sat for a deposition.
Engoron also rejected Trump’s arguments that the attorney general’s “investigation was based on ‘personal animus’ and that it amounted to selective prosecution,” Middlebrooks noted.
Earlier this month, Engoron said he was considering another set of sanctions against Habba and Madaio, as well as two other law firms representing Trump, for setting forth “the same legal arguments that this court previously rejected,” as Insider’s Laura Italiano previously reported. Those legal arguments include claiming that James’ investigation amounted to a “witch hunt,” and that the New York attorney general did not have the standing to sue Trump’s New York-based business.
“This widespread and persistent conduct points to the need for deterrence,” Middlebrooks wrote in justifying the $1 million fine.
Trump’s lawyers have to deal with his 2024 run
In the Trump lawsuits that haven’t been dismissed, those trials may need to be scheduled around his 2024 campaign events. He can’t be chowing down corn dogs at the Iowa State Fair if he needs to be in court defending himself against Carroll’s rape allegations.
A scheduling scuffle played out in court filings late last year in a class-action lawsuit brought by a group of people who said Trump scammed them by promoting a multi-level marketing scheme. Roberta Kaplan, who is also representing plaintiffs in the case, asked the judge to set a trial date “before primary contests and other campaign-related events begin in earnest.”
“Plaintiffs have no desire to interfere with the upcoming campaign, and are mindful that, should the schedule in this case extend into 2024, Defendants likely will, as they have in the past, use the campaign as a basis to seek further delay,” Kaplan wrote in a November 21 letter, shortly after Trump announced his candidacy.
Attorneys for Trump described the concerns as “wholly manufactured” and said Trump wouldn’t have a problem with an early 2024 trial date, even though he sought to have trials moved during the 2016 campaign.
“There is nothing before the Court that even remotely suggests that President Trump is unwilling or will be unable to ‘participate at trial’ or be subjected to ‘cross examination’ in early 2024,” Trump’s attorney Clifford S. Robert wrote.
A trial for Carroll’s claims is set for April of this year, and James’ lawsuit against Trump is on track for October. The judge overseeing the class-action lawsuit ultimately scheduled the trial to begin in January 2024.
Trump’s docket may continue to fill up. Within weeks, the Fulton County district attorney, Fani Willis, is expected to reach a decision about whether to bring criminal charges against him for trying to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election results. Jack Smith, a special counsel for the Justice Department, is also expected to reach a charging decision as soon as this summer over Trump keeping government documents after leaving the presidency, according to The New York Times.