After James Comey’s bombshell testimony, it didn’t take Team Trump long to hit back with a tactic dating to the president’s real estate days: a lawsuit.
Instead of moving on with the business of running the country, President Donald Trump through his personal lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, plans to file a complaint about the FBI director he fired with the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Justice Department’s inspector general, according to a CNN report.
Critics immediately charged this was a frivolous lawsuit––and that it was evidence Trump has brought his bare-knuckle lawfare tactics from the New York real estate world to the White House. Norm Eisen, who co-founded Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, called the move “abuse of process” and announced his group would move to defend Comey.
To longtime Trump-watchers, Kasowitz’s move is no surprise. Rather, it’s part of a pattern that stretches over the course of Trump’s entire career in public life of using aggressive legal moves to hit back against rivals and critics.
“In general, I’d say that Trump has a well-established record for using lawsuits to punish people he considers enemies and draw attention to himself,” said Michael D’Antonio, author of the Trump biography Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success.
It started decades ago, D’Antonio said, when Roy Cohn sued the Justice Department in 1974 on Trump’s behalf for a whopping $100 million. The suit charged that Trump was a victim of “reverse discrimination” as the result of an investigation into allegations that he discriminated against black people when renting out his properties. Trump ultimately settled with the government, and never admitted he had done anything wrong. He didn’t get the $100 million, either. But, according to D’Antonio, he learned a new strategy: When in hot water, sue.
“Taking advantage of a system that permits anyone to file suit over almost anything, he has gone after everyone from the writer Tim O'Brien, for supposedly harming him with a book, to the city of palm Beach for regulating his flagpole,” D’Antonio told The Daily Beast. “In most cases, he has been the wealthier and more powerful party, which meant that those he sued were disproportionately harmed by the cost of fighting him.”
As a career prosecutor and former U.S. attorney, Comey is unlikely to be fazed by a lawsuit or two. But other targets of Trump’s lawfare have been less advantaged. As The Daily Beast detailed in July 2015, a month after Trump announced his presidential bid, Trump has a habit of suing his foes early and often. He took time out of his nascent campaign to sue Univision for refusing to air his Miss USA and Miss Universe beauty pageants. He threatened to sue Rosie O’Donnell after she said he was broke; rapper Mac Miller, who wrote a song about him; and an activist who tried to get Macy’s to stop selling Trump products. The list goes on and on.
Trump’s longtime attorney, Michael Cohen, has also boasted about the lawfare tactics with which Comey is now becoming familiar.
“Do you want to destroy your life? It’s going to be my privilege to serve it to you on a silver platter like I did that idiot from Pennsylvania in Miss USA, because I think you’re dumber than she is,” Cohen told a Daily Beast reporter who wrote an unflattering story about Trump. “Sheena Monnin, another one that wanted to defame Mr. Trump and ended up with a $5 million judgment. That’s going to be nothing compared to what I do to you.”
Cohen never made good on this particular threat.
In Monnin’s case, Trump and co. took her to court after she posted on Facebook that she thought the Miss USA pageant was rigged. Cohen called TMZ host Harvey Levin to demand she apologize and threaten her with the suit.
“How much money are you gonna get from somebody who works at the Sunglass Hut?” Levin asked.
“It’s not about the money,” Cohen retorted. “You understand that. You understand Mr. Trump.”
Trump and Monnin settled out of court, and she no longer publicly discusses the suit––potentially, as The Daily Beast detailed, because of a gag order.
Notably––and not surprisingly––Trump has shown a special propensity for threatening to sue journalists. A mere four months after he announced his presidential bid, the Columbia Journalism Review listed the host of threats he directed at journalists as a candidate. At that point, by their count, he had threatened 11 lawsuits. In the years since then, the number of legal threats is basically uncountable.
Trump is so enthusiastic about lawsuits that he’s ruminated about changing the libel laws so people can sue media outlets more easily.
Susan Seager, a first amendment attorney and columnist at TheWrap who teaches media law at the University of Southern California, wrote an extensive study of Trump’s litigation habits, wrote an extensive history of Trump’s history of libel lawsuits. She found the man who would be president was “a libel bully but also a libel loser”––inclined to sue even when he had no shot of winning.
“He sues his critics and he sues even though he doesn’t win,” she told The Daily Beast. “He sues without caring whether he can win or not.”
And, she added, the Comey threat fits with Trump’s pattern of suing his critics. The only question is if it will also fit with his pattern of losing to them.