WASHINGTON, D.C. — Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard — the first Hindu American elected to the U.S. Congress — has sued Hillary Clinton for defamation, and is seeking $50 million in damages from the former Secretary of State and the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee for calling her a “Russian asset” during an October 2019 interview.
In the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in New York on Jan. 22, Gabbard, who is a blip on the radar of presidential polling with less than 3 percent nationally making her ninth in the dozen or so candidates still in the hustings and did not qualify for the December or January presidential debates, claimed she suffered "significant actual damages, personally and professionally, that are estimated to exceed $50 million — and continue to this day."
It said, "Clinton lied about her perceived rival Tulsi Gabbard," and alleged that “she did so publicly, unambiguously, and with obvious malicious intent. Tulsi has been harmed by Clinton’s lies — and American democracy has suffered as well.”
In October, Clinton, speaking on a podcast with David Plouffe, a former adviser to President Obama, although not naming Gabbard, said, "I'm not making any predictions, but I think they've got their eye on somebody who is currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third-party candidate.”
"She's the favorite of the Russians, they have a bunch of sites and bots and other ways of supporting her so far, and that's assuming Jill Stein will give it up, which she might not, because she's also a Russian asset. Yeah, she's a Russian asset, I mean totally. They know they can't win without a third-party candidate," Clinton said.
Stein was the Green Party candidate in the 2016 presidential election.
At the time, there were just five women running for president at the time — the four term Congresswoman Gabbard, U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Amy Klobuchar, and author and spiritual guru Marianne Williamson.
When Clinton's spokesperson, Nick Merrill, was asked if Gabbard, an Iraq war veteran, who serves as a major in the Hawaii National Guard was the candidate she was referring to, quipped, "If the nesting doll fits," a reference to Russian nesting dolls.
Gabbard's suit alleged that Clinton, “a cutthroat politician” had targeted her and “smeared” her “political and personal reputation” with this false accusation as "retribution" when she resigned as Democratic National Committee vice chair, in order to endorse Clinton’s primary opponent in 2016 U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, and that “Clinton’s agents emailed Tulsi to tell her that the Clinton team ‘no longer trust[s] [Tulsi’s] judgment,’ and Tulsi was told that the Clinton team would never forget this.”
“Clinton’s false assertions were made in a deliberate attempt to derail Tulsi’s presidential campaign,” it added, and argued that “Tulsi brings this lawsuit to ensure that the truth prevails and to ensure this country’s political elites are held accountable for intentionally trying to distort the truth in the midst of a critical Presidential election.”
The lawsuit also stated that "Clinton reserves a special hatred and animosity for Tulsi — who never endorsed Clinton, did not campaign for her, and to top it off, gave the nomination speech for Senator Sanders at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.”
"Tulsi is not a Russian asset. No one — Russia or anyone else — controls her or her presidential campaign," it continued, and declared, "Instead, Tulsi is a loyal American servant, declaring her allegiance to the United States of America both as a soldier and as a member of Congress."
Her lawyer, Brian Dunne, said, “Tulsi Gabbard is a loyal American civil servant who has also dedicated her life to protecting the safety of all Americans,” and added, “Rep. Gabbard’s presidential campaign continues to gain momentum, but she has seen her political and personal reputation smeared and her candidacy intentionally damaged by Clinton’s malicious and demonstrably false remarks.”
Merrill, contacted by ABC news about the lawsuit, said "that's ridiculous."
In November, Gabbard, appearing on ABC's "The View" bitterly complained, "It's offensive to me as a soldier, as an American, as a member of Congress, as a veteran, and frankly as a woman, to be so demeaned in this way," and declared, "I am a patriot, I love our country ... I have dedicated almost my entire adult life to protecting the safety, security and freedom of all Americans in this country.
The same month, Gabbard's legal counsel released a statement calling on Clinton to hold a press conference to "verbally retract—in full—your comments. We also demand that you immediately publish this full and fair retraction on the twitter account @HillaryClinton." But Clinton completely ignored this demand.
Dunne said, “One would expect someone of Mrs. Clinton’s political background to act with a greater level of maturity and dignity, but her personal hostility toward Rep. Gabbard apparently clouded Mrs. Clinton’s reason and blinded her to U.S. defamation laws. She resorted to a damaging whisper campaign founded on lies, and when presented with the opportunity to retract her damaging remarks, she refused. Rep. Gabbard must defend her good name and hold Mrs. Clinton responsible. This lawsuit intends to do just that.”
But many legal experts were quoted in the media as saying that Gabbard’s lawsuit would likely be thrown out because it a steep challenge to prevail in such a defamation claim.”
One such expert, Jeffrey J. Pyle, a Boston-based attorney and law partner at Prince LobelTye LLP, who has represented clients in a number of cases involving defamation, libel, and First Amendment litigation, told ABC News, “To prevail in her defamation claim, Rep. Gabbard has to prove that Secretary Clinton made a false statement of fact.”
He said, “The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that mere ‘loose and figurative’ expressions, even ‘vigorous epithets,’ don’t qualify. And, the courts are especially protective of the right to engage in sharp-elbowed political debate.”
According to Pyle, "Rep. Gabbard will have a difficult time convincing the court that Secretary Clinton’s statements were anything other than non-factual 'rhetorical hyperbole,' which is thoroughly protected by the First Amendment."
He also noted that Gabbard had responded to Clinton's comments by calling her the “embodiment of corruption,” and said, " I don’t think Rep. Gabbard’s hyperbolic response is a false statement of fact, any more than Secretary Clinton’s use of the epithet ‘Russian asset’ is,” he said.
Immediately after Clinton’s remarks on the podcast, Gabbard shot back in a tweet, writing, "Thank you @HillaryClinton. You, the queen of warmongers, embodiment of corruption, and personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party for so long, have finally come out from behind the curtain. From the day I announced my candidacy, there has been a concerted campaign to destroy my reputation. We wondered who was behind it and why. Now we know — it was always you, through your proxies and powerful allies in the corporate media and war machine, afraid of the threat I pose."
Pyle’s contention was echoed by Steve Vladeck, a CNN contributor and professor of Law at the University of Texas School of Law, who said, “Under settled Supreme Court precedent, a defamation claim by a public figure like Tulsi Gabbard requires proof on her part that the speaker not only said something that was false, but did so 'with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not,'That's an incredibly high standard to meet, and rightly so."
He added: "As the Supreme Court explained in 1964, a stricter regime would necessarily make it harder to criticize public figures. Thus, although Clinton's remarks about Gabbard may well have been indecorous, it's difficult to imagine the courts concluding that they were legally actionable."
Jim Geraghty, writing in the conservative National Review, said, “Tulsi Gabbard’s defamation lawsuit against Hillary Clinton is not likely to succeed, and is likely to be widely perceived as a publicity stunt and/or effort to remind Democratic primary voters that she’s still running for president.”
Gabbard, who has announced she will not be running for re-election to the U.S. House of Representatives this year as she is preparing to "to walk into the Oval Office,” just a few hours after filing her lawsuit against Clinton, sent out a missive to her supporters and donors seeking donations, writing that “Hillary Clinton’s high priced attorneys and friends in high places won’t make it easy, but we cannot let the establishment elite sideline the will of the American people.”
Imploring her supporters and donors to stand with her “and help me hold Hillary Clinton accountable for her lies,” she argued, “We tell our kids to walk away from bullies. Ignore them. But what if that bullying behavior is not just about harm to the individuals involved? What if it’s a deliberate attempt to corrupt our democracy? What if its effect is to silence and sideline the will of the American people?
“You stand up. You call it out, and then you hold the bully accountable,” she said, and added, “Hillary Clinton and her establishment friends are playing high school popularity politics instead of serving the American people.”
“And when a warmonger responsible for getting us into no-win wars that make our country less safe accuses me — a soldier, a veteran, a sitting member of Congress — of treason, I will defend against it,” Gabbard said.