EXCLUSIVE: The impeachment inquiry against President Trump has triggered a wave of charges, countercharges, court battles, subpoenas and legal threats.
Now it has produced its first libel suit.
A White House official on Monday sued Politico and one of its reporters over stories and tweets that he says falsely accuse him of “lying, deceit and unethical conduct.”
Kash Patel, the National Security Council’s senior counterterrorism director, is seeking more than $25 million in damages in the suit filed in Virginia. We have reached out to Politico for comment.
The lawsuit also names Natasha Bertrand, a Politico reporter and MSNBC contributor, as well as Politico owner Robert Allbritton. The allegations, which center on what the president was told about the situation in Ukraine, go to the heart of the case for impeachment. Politico spokesman Brad Dayspring told me: “This lawsuit is high on bombast and low on merit. It is unserious and is a public relations tactic designed to intimidate journalists and media organizations from doing their job.”
While Politico is the nominal target of the suit, it represents an aggressive attempt by a presidential aide to put Adam Schiff’s handling of the impeachment inquiry itself on trial. Describing the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee as “a demagogue with an ax to grind against the president,” Patel portrays Schiff as running roughshod over rules and interviewing witnesses “to create click-bait headlines and soundbites to feed to his co-conspirators and media sympathizers.”
The suit stems from Bertrand’s Oct. 23 story, headlined “Nunes Protege Fed Ukraine Info to Trump.” Patel previously worked for Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, spearheading the Intel Committee’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, before joining the White House in February.
The Politico piece said Patel “was among those passing negative information about Ukraine to President Donald Trump earlier this year, fueling the president’s belief that Ukraine was brimming with corruption and interfered in the 2016 election on behalf of Democrats.”
Patel was “so involved in the issue,” the story said, that “at one point Trump thought he was in charge of Ukraine policy for the National Security Council.” This was attributed to closed-door House testimony by Fiona Hill,” a former NSC official. What’s more, Politico said, “Patel’s involvement demonstrates that the president had at least some support for the scheme from within the NSC” -- the scheme being to pressure Ukraine into investigations that would help Trump politically.
In fact, Patel’s suit says, “at no time” before Oct. 30 “had Kash ever communicated with the president on any matters involving Ukraine. Kash never supplied any Ukraine ‘materials’ to the president.”
Schiff is a major target. The suit, which includes its share of Trumpian language, says the defendants “acted in concert” with the congressman or his aides to further the impeachment probe. The alleged purpose was to “destroy Kash’s reputation” as a lawyer and presidential aide to further “Schiff’s baseless Ukrainian quid pro quo hoax.”
Patel issued a public denial earlier this month, saying a number of media outlets “have falsely reported that...I have communicated with President Trump regarding Ukraine.”
The backdrop for the lawsuit is the leaks by committee staff of the closed-door testimony of Hill, who had been the NSC’s top Russia expert, and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, another NSC official.
A second story by Bertrand, on Oct. 30, quoted sources as saying Vindman told lawmakers that Patel “‘misrepresented’ himself” to Trump “in an effort to involve himself further in Ukraine policy, according to two people familiar with his closed-door deposition.” The piece said the president “believed at the time” that Patel “was actually the NSC’s top Ukraine expert instead of Vindman,” despite Patel’s lack of experience with Ukraine. This, Politico said, highlighted “the unusual steps top NSC officials were taking as early as May to avoid angering or annoying the president on Ukraine issues,” and “feeding Trump’s belief that Ukraine was brimming with corruption and had interfered in the 2016 election on behalf of Democrats.”
The lawsuit contends -- and this is certain to be contested -- that if Politico “had bothered to wait for the transcript, they would have learned that Hill completely fabricated the story that Kash had provided ‘materials on Ukraine’ to the president.”
Vindman’s testimony shows he had no firsthand knowledge of Patel’s actions beyond what Hill told him, according to the suit, and said Patel was held “in high regard.”
Patel essentially argues that Hill and Vindman offered no direct evidence to show he briefed the president on Ukraine. Politico could counter that it was fairly reporting on congressional testimony, except that the stories were based on leaked accounts, not the actual transcripts.
Patel burst into the news last year during the committee’s Russia probe. The New York Times cited sources in saying he was the primary author of a controversial memo, released by Nunes over the objections of the FBI and intelligence community, that accused federal officials of bias against Trump.
The suit describes Patel as a “private individual,” a key point since the bar for a successful libel suit is much higher if, as a White House official, he is deemed a public figure.