It was a rhetorical terrarium, self-contained and self-sufficient. An ecosystem where nonsense thrived and spread, where conspiracy theories competed Darwinistically for dominance. So his vague dismissals of the Russia investigation as a hoax in early 2017 had, by 2021, become complicated organisms, vines stretching and intertwining throughout the pro-Trump media universe.
And then, earlier this year, a change. Trump proudly removed his Russia theory from its home and presented it to the court, like a kid digging up a dandelion he’d been watching in his yard and offering it as a horticulture contender at the state fair. The verdict, offered in a filing on Thursday, was probably not what Trump would have hoped.
Suffice it to say, he did not earn a blue ribbon.
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The background here is interesting, by the way. Trump presented his grand Russia hoax conspiracy in the form of a lawsuit, alleging that Hillary Clinton and others — FBI officials, attorneys, IT guys — had conspired against him in violation of racketeering statutes (a.k.a. RICO). The suit was filed in a specific courthouse in the Southern District of Florida, apparently with the hope that it would be heard by a particular judge that Trump himself had appointed.
It wasn’t. Instead, it landed with District Judge Donald M. Middlebrooks. When Trump’s legal team quickly moved to have Middlebrooks removed from the case, alleging bias, Middlebrooks responded by disparaging the transparency of Trump’s effort.
“I note that Plaintiff filed this lawsuit in the Fort Pierce division of this District, where only one federal judge sits: Judge Aileen Cannon, who Plaintiff appointed in 2020,” he wrote in denying Trump’s request. “Despite the odds, this case landed with me instead. And when Plaintiff is a litigant before a judge that he himself appointed, he does not tend to advance these same sorts of bias concerns.”
Aileen Cannon, you may be aware, is the jurist who recently issued a ruling of remarkable favorability on Trump’s behalf in the matter of the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago.
Middlebrooks’s blunt tone in assessing Trump’s intent carried through to his dismissal of the lawsuit this week.
“Plaintiff’s theory of this case, set forth over 527 paragraphs in the first 118 pages of the Amended Complaint, is difficult to summarize in a concise and cohesive manner,” Middlebrooks wrote as he began picking Trump’s allegations apart. “It was certainly not presented that way.”
In short, the theory that flourished in Trump’s friendly ecosystem was that the Russia probe was a function of explicit dishonesty on the part of Clinton: that her allies sought to create a dossier of false reports about Trump and Russia and that they used stolen data to suggest a link between Trump’s business and a Russian bank.
The suit was filed only after the latter allegation became a central part of special counsel John Durham’s investigation. Durham, you’ll recall, was appointed by then-Attorney General William P. Barr specifically to try to see whether a case could be made to cast the investigation into Russian interference as flawed or biased. Unfortunately for Trump, the case was also filed before Durham’s case fell apart and before the lawyer targeted for prosecution, Michael Sussmann, was found not guilty by a jury.
(“The Amended Complaint cites copiously to the indictment of Michael Sussmann and a substantial portion of the Amended Complaint contains its allegations,” Middlebrooks writes at one point. “ … But nowhere does the Amended Complaint mention Mr. Sussmann’s acquittal.”)
As one would expect, the focus of the decision is on the legal merits of the case, which Middlebrooks found entirely unconvincing.
“Plaintiff cannot state a RICO claim without two predicate acts,” he writes at one point, for example, “and, after two attempts, he has failed to plausibly allege even one.”
Middlebrooks derides the sloppiness of the Trump team’s presentation, the obvious challenges with the statute of limitations for any such suit and the quality of the evidence offered. At one point, he notes that Trump’s lawyers misunderstood an allegation centered on computer hacking. (“What must be ‘off limits,’ ” he explains, “is the area of the computer from which the information was obtained, not the information itself.”) At another, he reflects on the circuitousness of Trump’s assertions about the FBI probe into interference, code-named “Crossfire Hurricane.”
“Perplexingly, Plaintiff appears to argue that the Defendants obstructed investigation Crossfire Hurricane by contributing to the initiation of Crossfire Hurricane,” he writes. “That Defendants could have obstructed a proceeding by initiating it defies logic.”
While the decision centers on the legal questions, it does also uproot the conspiracy theory itself. A report from the Justice Department inspector general cited by Trump’s lawyers “compels the opposite conclusion” from the one Trump offers in his theory: The IG “concluded that the FBI operated Crossfire Hurricane ‘for an authorized purpose’ and ‘with adequate factual predication’ that had nothing to do with any Defendant.”
What’s more, Middlebrooks adds later, “Plaintiff does not plausibly allege that any [White House] or Trump Organization computer was hacked.” This was an allegation Trump and his allies made repeatedly earlier this year, elevating components of legal filings from Durham. Middlebrooks is correct: there is no evidence of any such hacking, much less Trump’s broader theory that the Russia probe was to any significant degree downstream from Hillary Clinton.
“The Inspector General Report specifically explained that the investigation was not predicated on DNC information or the Steele Dossier, but on a tip from a friendly foreign government,” Middlebrooks wrote, articulating what is common knowledge in the world outside of Trump’s terrarium.
The judge made very clear that he understood Trump’s suit for what it obviously is.
“At its core, the problem with Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint is that Plaintiff is not attempting to seek redress for any legal harm,” he wrote. “ … instead, he is seeking to flaunt a two-hundred-page political manifesto outlining his grievances against those that have opposed him, and this Court is not the appropriate forum.”
The appropriate forum is cable news or Truth Social. You can’t simply pluck a mushroom off a rotting log and transplant it onto a table and expect it to thrive. It needs the right environment, one in which credulity and fealty are abundant.
The real world is simply too inhospitable.