Tulsi Gabbard filed a defamation lawsuit against Hillary Clinton on Wednesday, alleging the former secretary of state and 2016 Democratic presidential nominee “lied” about the Hawaii congresswoman’s ties to Russia during a 2019 interview.
The lawsuit stems from an October 2019 interview in which Clinton said that a Democrat running in the presidential primary was being groomed to run as a third-party candidate and was a favorite of the Russians.
“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,” Clinton said, speaking on a podcast with former Obama adviser David Plouffe. “She’s the favorite of the Russians.”
Clinton, in the same interview, suggested that person she was talking about was a “Russian asset,” while not naming Gabbard.
When CNN asked Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill whether the former secretary of state was referring to Gabbard in the interview, Merrill said, “If the nesting doll fits” — a reference to Russian nesting dolls.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in federal court in the Southern District of New York, says Gabbard has suffered damages that are “estimated to exceed $50 million.” She is seeking unspecified compensation and the prevention of a further spread of the comments. Clinton spokesman Merrill responded to the lawsuit by calling it “ridiculous.”
The lawsuit stands little chance of success, but it offers Gabbard much-needed publicity for her campaign ahead of the Iowa caucuses next month.
“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,’” said Steve Vladeck, a CNN contributor and Professor of Law at the University of Texas School of Law. “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.”
Gabbard announced a presidential bid in January 2019. While she has outlasted a number of better known Democrats, she has failed to catch on in national and statewide polling and has all but staked her entire campaign on the New Hampshire primary, the second contest in the nomination calendar where a recent Monmouth University poll found her at 4%, well behind other candidates in the race.
Gabbard has previously used her confrontation with Clinton as a way to draw attention to her presidential campaign, like when her lawyer wrote a letter demanding a retraction from Clinton in November 2019.
Gabbard’s lawsuit argues that Clinton “had no basis for making her false assertions about Tulsi” and that “Clinton’s peddling of this theory has harmed Tulsi, has harmed American voters, and has harmed American democracy.”
Gabbard alleges that Clinton has held a grudge against the congresswoman after she endorsed Bernie Sanders over Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary.
The lawsuit goes on to say, “The ordinary and average person who heard and read the Defamatory Statements understood them to be making serious charges against Tulsi: that Tulsi is a tool of, and perhaps an agent of, the United States’s geopolitical rival Russia.”
Brian Dunne, Gabbard’s lawyer, said in a statement about the lawsuit that Gabbard “must defend her good name and hold Mrs. Clinton responsible. This lawsuit intends to do just that.”