WASHINGTON (CN) – Attorneys for three private citizens faced an uphill battle Thursday trying to convince a federal judge to consider their lawsuit against unofficial Trump adviser Roger Stone and the Trump campaign over their alleged involvement in the Russian conspiracy to disrupt the 2016 election.
“The big question is can I consider the case,” U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle said shortly after the nearly 4-hour hearing got underway. “And I say no.”
Huvelle pressed the attorneys to spell out the scope of the conspiracy that ensnared their clients, whose emails were among those U.S. intelligence agencies say were stolen by Russian hackers and strategically released by Wikileaks ahead of the election to boost Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton’s chances.
The men – a Reagan-era foreign service officer, a former monk, and a Democratic National Committee staffer – claim Stone and Donald J. Trump for President Inc. engaged in the conspiracy with the Russians, who promised to disseminate the emails in exchange for foreign policy concessions.
Two plaintiffs – Democratic party donors – had their social security numbers released, while the third had to resign from his job at the DNC because of the personal nature of the content of his emails.
They claim Stone and the campaign violated two D.C. laws as a result of the leak and conspired to interfere with civil rights by intimidating Democratic voters, donors, and DNC staffers who supported Clinton.
Stone and the Trump campaign have asked the court to dismiss the case, but attorney Benjamin Berwick with Protect Democracy Project argued Thursday the court must construe the complaint as true for now.
Huvelle devoted a good chunk of time trying to pin down when the alleged injury occurred and whether the case, if it survives, belongs in the District of Columbia. None of the plaintiffs live in Washington and the Trump campaign says it’s based mostly in New York.
Berwick pointed to a March 2016 foreign policy meeting at the Trump hotel, where the team discussed changing the Republican Party’s Ukraine platform and meeting with Russians, as a sufficient basis to bring the case here.
But Huvelle wondered if the case belongs in New York instead, and questioned whether the three men have standing to challenge the conspiracy as a whole.
The DNC, the main target of the Russian cyberattack, sued the Russian Federation, Wikileaks and Donald J. Trump for President on April 20 in the Eastern District of New York over their role in the conspiracy.
Berwick acknowledged the DNC has a different challenge to the scope of the conspiracy.
“You are not the DNC,” Huvelle said, highlighting that the organization decided to sue in New York instead of Washington.
“That doesn’t help you, does it,” she added.
Huvelle also pressed Berwick about Stone’s alleged actions in Washington. Stone did not appear in court Thursday afternoon, but his attorney Robert Buschel argued the injury was over after the release of the emails.
“That is the end of the conspiracy,” Buschel said.
Stone has acknowledged communicating with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, and also exchanged private and public messages with alleged Russian hacker Guccifer 2.0 on Twitter. The original complaint filed this past July also points to media appearances and tweets by Stone that suggest he may have known the DNC emails would be released.
A social media adviser who worked for Stone’s political action committee received a pair of subpoenas this week from Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election. One subpoena orders the adviser, Jason Sullivan, to appear before the grand jury. The other demands documents and other electronic information.
Stone acknowledged Sullivan had login credentials to his Twitter account, though he said he couldn’t recall if Sullivan had ever tweeted from it. Stone’s Twitter activity raised eyebrows ahead of the election after he tweeted seemingly prophetic statements about the hack of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta’s email account and Assange’s plot to publish the fruits of the hack on Wikileaks.
All of Stone’s predictions came true weeks later.
Berwick noted in court Thursday that Stone proclaimed himself a “dirty trickster,” but that failed to satisfy Huvelle, who said being a prankster doesn’t give her jurisdiction over the case.
“We don’t have a prankster exception,” she said.
Berwick asserted the conspiracy didn’t end after Wikileaks released the emails and pointed to ongoing attempts by Trump to offer Russia foreign policy benefits.
“Yeah, but your guys don’t have standing for that,” Huvelle responded.
Berwick disagreed. He said Trump and others in the campaign called attention to the emails from a huge platform, which increased his clients’ injuries.
“It brought more eyes to the information,” he said.
But Huvelle scolded Berwick for failing to file any examples of the hacked emails that led to his clients’ alleged injuries, specifically those that led DNC staffer Scott Comer to resign. Comer said the emails also disclosed his sexual orientation, which he had hidden from some members of his family to maintain his relationships with them.
But Huvelle said she only had in her possession a single email that described his health problems. Berwick said he would provide the court the emails, to Huvelle’s displeasure.
“It’s a little late, I would think,” she said.
Huvelle also noted that she had no emails showing why Comer lost his job.
“I’ve got to see the emails,” she said.
Appearing on behalf of Donald J. Trump for President Inc. to defend the campaign against allegations of Russian collusion, Michael Carvin with Jones Day dismissed the allegations as “wild speculation.”
Carvin said there is a “fundamental disconnect” between saying the campaign wanted to hurt Clinton versus hurting the plaintiffs, which he argued is grounds for dismissal. Carvin also questioned how the campaign could be held liable for something that Wikileaks did.
Carvin argued the campaign would have threatened to reveal the Social Security numbers and personal information only after they donated to the DNC had they intended to specifically hurt the plaintiffs.
Huvelle cautioned Carvin against a defense prefaced on his client’s ability to commit a crime better.
“I’m not sure that’s going to carry the day,” she said.
But Carvin insisted there is no basis for the case to proceed in Washington.
“Where is the allegation in the complaint that we met with Wikileaks anywhere, let alone in the District of Columbia,” he said.