NEW YORK — When a Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic panned Donald Trump’s plans for a new Manhattan skyscraper, Trump responded by suing. When the tenants of a building he was trying to clear sued to halt their evictions, Trump slapped back by filing suit against the law firm representing the tenants. And when an author said the former president was worth far less than he’d claimed, Trump again took legal action.
So when Trump last week filed a sprawling suit accusing his 2016 rival Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party of conspiring to sink his winning presidential campaign by alleging ties to Russia — renewing one of his longest-standing perceived affronts — it wasn’t a surprise.
Trump has spent decades repurposing political and personal grievances into causes of legal action. Throughout his business and political career, he has used the courts as a venue to air his complaints and as a tool to intimidate adversaries, sully their reputations and try to garner media attention.
“It’s part of his pattern of using the law to punish his enemies, as a weapon, as something it was never intended to be,” said James D. Zirin, a former federal prosecutor in Manhattan and the author of the book “Plaintiff in Chief,” which details Trump’s legal history. “For him, litigation was a way of life.”
Trump’s latest lawsuit revisits a familiar grievance: that Democrats in 2016 concocted fictitious claims that his campaign was colluding with Russia and that the FBI as a result pursued an “unfounded” investigation.
The 108-page suit, as much a political screed as a legal document, names as defendants longstanding targets of his ire from both the political realm — Clinton and her aides — and the law enforcement community, including former FBI Director James Comey and Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, two FBI officials who exchanged critical text messages about Trump during the 2016 campaign.
It also piggybacks off the work of special counsel John Durham, listing as defendants the three people — a cybersecurity attorney, an ex-FBI lawyer and a Russia analyst — who have been charged in that criminal probe.
Trump, in the suit, paints himself as the victim of a vast, racketeering conspiracy in which FBI officials who led the investigation knew that it was “based on a false and contrived premise.”
“Acting in concert, the Defendants maliciously conspired to weave a false narrative that their Republican opponent, Donald J. Trump, was colluding with a hostile foreign sovereignty,” his lawyers wrote, describing the alleged scheme as “so outrageous, subversive and incendiary that even the events of Watergate pale in comparison.”
It’s well-established through a Justice Department inspector general investigation that the FBI made errors and missteps during the Russia probe that Trump could look to seize on if his lawsuit advances. But Russia did meddle in the 2016 election.
U.S. intelligence agencies concluded in January 2017 that Russia mounted a far-ranging influence campaign aimed at helping Trump beat Clinton. And the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee, after three years of investigation, affirmed those conclusions, saying intelligence officials had specific information that Russia preferred Trump and that Russian President Vladimir Putin had “approved and directed aspects” of the Kremlin’s influence campaign. It also found clear ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia, concluding that Trump’s campaign chairman had had regular contact with a Russian intelligence officer and that other Trump associates were eager to exploit the Kremlin’s aid.
Former special counsel Robert Mueller, who was charged with further investigating the links between Trump and Russia, did not establish a criminal conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign, but concluded that Russian interference was “sweeping and systematic.” His investigation resulted in criminal charges against 34 people and three entities, including 26 Russians, Trump’s former campaign chair and national security adviser.
Representatives for Trump did not respond to requests for comment. But Trump attorney Alina Habba defended his approach on Newsmax, telling the network more suits were coming “soon.”
“We have another suit being filed shortly,” she said. “And anybody that’s going to try and make up malicious stories about him while he was sitting as president, prior to his presidency or now is going to be sued.”
Trump, meanwhile, was already using the filing to rile up his crowds at a rally in Georgia Saturday night.
“To fight back against this corrupt establishment’s relentless hoaxes and lies, this week I filed a historic lawsuit to hold them accountable for the Russia, Russia, Russia hoax,” Trump said to cheers. His mention of Clinton prompted especially loud applause and a revival of the “Lock her up!” chant that was a defining feature of his 2016 campaign.
In addition to serving as a useful political cudgel, Trump’s effort, which comes as he is mulling another run for the White House, could lend the imprimatur of credibility to campaign trail grievances, said Stephen Gillers, a New York University professor of legal ethics.
“To the unaware public, the fact that grievances are repackaged as legal claims adds credibility to the force of those grievances,” Gillers said. “Anyone who pays attention to what goes on in the courts will be able to see through these claims as claims of political victimization in another form. But the public by and large does not pay attention to the validity of the claims.”
Last year, Trump took similar action, filing suits against three of the country’s biggest tech companies, claiming he and other conservatives had been wrongfully censored after his accounts were suspended.
It’s a tactic Trump has used again and again.
In the real estate, casino and other industries where the former president made fortunes and lost them, Trump’s use of lawsuits as a business weapon was legendary. He sued or threatened to sue contractors, business partners, tax authorities and the media.
“Trump loved to sue, especially parties that could not afford a legal defense,” said Barbara Res, a former longtime Trump Organization executive turned critic. She said one legal tactic he turned to often was the “preventive strike” suit to weaken rivals and create the impression he was the aggrieved party before they acted.
“Trump’s perception and that of many people is that the first person to sue has a legitimate complaint,” Res said.
Indeed, when Trump defaulted on a giant Deutsche Bank loan for his Chicago hotel and condo tower during the 2008 financial crisis, he didn’t wait to be sued. Instead, he filed a complaint accusing the lender of “predatory lending practices” that hurt his reputation and helped trigger the global depression.
Instead of paying the bank, he argued, the bank should be paying him.
It was a novel argument and one that ultimately succeeded. Deutsche Bank ended up forgiving some of his loan, then extending him hundreds of millions of dollars in new loans in the coming years.
As a New York Times columnist was preparing to write about the effort, he received a note from one of Trump’s lawyers: “Please be assured that if your article is not factually correct, we will have no choice but to sue you.”
To many journalists, it’s a familiar threat, delivered with a raised voice and repeated for emphasis.
“We’ll sue you! We’ll sue you!” yelled a Trump lawyer to Associated Press journalists in a phone interview about Trump University and other defunct Trump ventures in 2016.
Trump learned his attack dog legal tactics from one his early legal advisers, the late Roy Cohn, the disbarred lawyer who made his name as a prosecutor in the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg communist spying case that sent the husband and wife to the electric chair, then as aide to Sen. Joe McCarthy during the Red Scare hearings.
Under Cohn, Trump countersued the Justice Department after it brought a case against the Trump Organization in the early 1970s for housing discrimination. The Trump Organization eventually settled, admitting no guilt.
In the years that followed, the casework never let up.
A USA Today investigation found Trump had been involved in at least 3,500 court cases over the course of three decades — more than five other top U.S. real estate owners combined. In more than half of the cases, Trump was the one who had sued.
The litigation continued while Trump was in the White House. In a desperate and futile attempt to remain in power, Trump and his allies filed dozens of baseless lawsuits challenging the 2020 election results. Again and again, judges said the plaintiffs had failed to prove fraud or misconduct.
Trump had made clear his intentions even before all the votes had been counted.
“We’ll be going to the U.S. Supreme Court,” he said during a 2:30 a.m. appearance hours after polls had closed.
“He’s exceptionally litigious, much of which is instituted not to win but rather to frustrate the opposing party by causing financial hardship,” said Trump’s former fixer-turned adversary Michael Cohen, who went to jail for making hush money payments to a porn star who alleged an affair with Trump, as well as lying to Congress about a proposed Trump skyscraper in Moscow.
When Trump wins — as he did last week in a case involving the porn star Stormy Daniels — Cohen said, “It emboldens him to continue this rampage of litigation for alternative purposes.”
The suits have proven beneficial in other ways. Trump spent more than a year and a half fighting efforts by then-Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. to obtain copies of his tax returns, taking the case all the way to the Supreme Court. While Trump ultimately failed, his stall tactics dragged the case out so long that Vance, who had appeared on the cusp of seeking an indictment, was replaced by a successor who has allegedly all but closed the case.
Even family is not immune.
In September, Trump sued his estranged niece, Mary Trump, and The New York Times over a 2018 story that challenged Trump’s claims of self-made wealth by documenting how his father, Fred, had given him at least $413 million over the decades, including through tax avoidance schemes. Trump’s lawsuit, filed in state court in New York, accused Mary Trump of breaching a settlement agreement by disclosing the records to the newspaper’s reporters.
Mary Trump’s lawyer, Ted Boutrous, wrote in a March 11 letter to the court that Trump’s lawsuit was “brought to punish Mary Trump and to chill speech in the public interest about the former President.”
Story by Jill Colvin, Eric Tucker and Bernard Condon. Associated Press writer Michael Sisak contributed to this report.