Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard on Wednesday filed a sharply worded defamation lawsuit against Hillary Clinton, claiming Clinton tried to “derail” her 2020 presidential campaign by describing her as a “Russian asset” in a podcast interview in October.
Asked for comment on Gabbard’s suit, Clinton’s spokesman, Nick Merrill, told PEOPLE: “That’s ridiculous.” Clinton has not yet responded in court filings.
What she actually said about Gabbard last fall has been the subject of some dispute.
The 72-year-old former secretary of state and presidential candidate suggested that Gabbard, 38, was a “Russian asset” while she was interviewed on political strategist David Plouffe’s Campaign HQ podcast.
Though Clinton did not name Gabbard, the discussion makes clear it was Gabbard to whom she was referring. Merrill later confirmed that, telling NBC News, “If the nesting doll fits…”
Politifact, the fact-checking organization, transcribed the full context of Clinton’s comments to Plouffe.
During the episode, Plouffe said to her that “one of the reasons [Trump] was able to win is the third party vote,” and Clinton agreed.
She later said, “They’re also going to do third party again. And 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.”
The “she” here referred to Gabbard, but the “they” in grooming referred to Republicans, not Russians, according to Clinton’s spokesman — though others who heard her remarks were initially confused.
The “Russian asset” remark now at the center of Gabbard’s suit was made during this part of the podcast.
“She’s the favorite of the Russians,” Clinton said, meaning Gabbard. “They have a bunch of sites and bots and other ways of supporting her so far, and that’s assuming [2016 candidate] Jill Stein will give it up. Which she might not, ’cause she’s also a Russian asset.”
“If the Russian propaganda machine, both their state media and their bot and troll operations, is backing a candidate aligned with their interests, that is just a reality, it is not speculation,” Merrill, Clinton’s spokesman, said afterward.
Gabbard immediately responded to Clinton on Twitter — accusing her in a series of fiery messages of being the “queen of corruption” who orchestrated a “concerted campaign to destroy my reputation.”
Her lawsuit, filed Wednesday morning in federal court in New York, echoes that same argument. It takes pains to detail Gabbard’s background of military and civic service but describes Clinton in far more scathing terms: “a cutthroat politician by any account.”
Gabbard claims that Clinton’s Russia comments peddled damaging “conspiracy theories” and were an attempt to “derail” her 2020 campaign. (Gabbard is a longshot to win the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination and has never polled among the top candidates.)
“In October 2019 — whether out of personal animus, political enmity, or fear of real change within a political party Clinton and her allies have long dominated — Clinton lied about her perceived rival Tulsi Gabbard. She did so publicly, unambiguously, and with obvious malicious intent,” Gabbard’s complaint states. She’s demanding a jury trial and an “appropriate amount” of compensatory, special and punitive damages.”
By way of alleged harm done to her by Clinton, Gabbard’s suit cites unidentified “scientifically conducted opinion surveys” that she says prove Clinton’s podcast comments were believed by “millions of Americans” and “large numbers” of battleground state voters.
Gabbard further claims the interview cost her “potential donors and potential voters” and she has “suffered significant actual
damages, personally and professionally, that are estimated to exceed $50 million.” That figure is not further explained.
Russian preference for Gabbard is widely understood to be because of her unusual position on the Syrian civil war and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is supported by the Russians. While al-Assad has been widely shunned and denounced as a violent dictator, Gabbard believes American military involvement in the region is not the answer and she raised eyebrows by choosing to meet with al-Assad in 2017.
Gabarrd’s lawsuit also alleges Clinton sought revenge against her after she backed Sen. Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s rival in the 2016 Democratic primary.
Brian Dunne, one of the lawyers representing Gabbard, tells PEOPLE Clinton “smeared” Gabbard’s reputation and he insists Clinton “refused” to retract what she’d said.
“One would expect someone of Mrs. Clinton’s political background to act with a greater level of maturity and responsibility, but her personal hostility toward Rep. Gabbard apparently clouded Mrs. Clinton’s reason and blinded her to U.S. defamation laws,” Dunne argues.
He adds: “Rep. Gabbard must defend her good name.”