Resolute Square

Trump Gets Hit With Big Sanctions (and more)

Trump and his attorney are under court order to pay Hillary Clinton, and 30 others, nearly $1 million for the idiotic RICO lawsuit that got tossed. Teri Kanefield breaks it down as only she can.
Credit: (AP Photo / Pablo Martinez)
Published:January 22, 2023

A federal judge in Florida sanctioned Trump and his lawyers $938,000 for that silly RICO lawsuit he brought against Hillary and others. Yes, he has to pay Hillary Clinton.

Want some fun? We can read the sanctions order together then I’ll answer questions. (The sanctions order is here. Trump’s original lawsuit is here.)

Basically, last March, Trump sued Hillary Clinton, and 30 other people and entities, accusing them of conspiring against him to undermine his 2016 campaign by lying about him.

Here is the list of defendants:


Trump’s first count was brought under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), a federal law designed to combat organized crime. Trump claimed that the above defendants formed an “enterprise” within the meaning of RICO.”

The sprawling complaint was an incomprehensible mess. Basically, Trump accused the defendants of forming an organization and conspiring to spread lies about him “all in the hopes of destroying his life, his political career, and rigging the 2016 Presidential Election in favor of Hillary Clinton.”

It’s the ultimate Trump Is A Victim Of Hillary and The Deep State lawsuit.

Here are the kinds of “facts” Trump asserted in his lawsuit:

  • “President Obama directed Mr. Comey to investigate Mr. Flynn and not inform Mr. Trump.”
  • Trump was “banned from different social media platforms, including Twitter as a result of the misinformation campaign waged by Hillary Clinton.”
  • Comey “maliciously prosecuted Trump and conspired with Ms. Clinton to do so.” (Never mind that Comey never initiated an investigation, much less a prosecution.)

Have you ever dealt with a compulsive liar and stopped to wonder, “Does this person know he’s lying, or is he crazy?” That was the feeling I got reading the complaint. Evidently, the judge ordering the sanctions had a similar feeling.

In ordering sanctions, the court (Judge Middlebrooks) opens with:

This case should never have been brought. Its inadequacy as a legal claim was evident from the start. No reasonable lawyer would have filed it. Intended for a political purpose, none of the counts of the amended complaint stated a cognizable legal claim.”

Here’s the standard for evaluating whether a lawsuit is frivolous (from the American Bar Association):

“A lawyer shall not bring or defend a proceeding, or assert or controvert an issue unless there is a basis in law and fact for doing so that is not frivolous. . .”

Defendants, particularly in criminal cases, are given leeway to raise every possible defense, but if you’re filing a lawsuit, you better make sure it has a basis in law or fact, or the court may hit you with sanctions to cover the legal fees and other monetary damages incurred by the people you sued. When you sue 31 people, as Trump did, that can be a lot of monetary damage. In fact, if your intent is to harass people, it will be a lot of monetary damage.

Before ordering sanctions, the court bent over backward to give Trump the standard opportunities to withdraw or fix the deficiencies in the claim. For all the people who were screaming, “Why is the court bending over backward like that?” you can see that after offering him reasonable opportunities to fix the defects in his pleadings, the sanctions order is stronger.

To demonstrate that Trump brought his RICO lawsuit for political reasons, the court showed that, after filing the lawsuit, Trump’s lawyers immediately went on Fox and Newsmax to talk about their lawsuit. Like this:

Alina Habba, Mr. Trump’s lead counsel, told Fox News’ Sean Hannity:
“You can’t make this up. You literally cannot make a story like this up . . . and President Trump is just not going to take it anymore. If you are going to make up lies, if you are going to try to take him down, he is going to fight you back. And that is what this is, this is the beginning of all that.”

She then said on Newsmax:
“What the real goal [of the suit] is, is democracy, is continuing to make sure that our elections, continuing to make sure our justice system is not obstructed by political enemies. That cannot happen. And that’s exactly what happened. They obstructed justice. They continued the false narrative . . . This grand scheme, that you could not make up, to take down an opponent. That is un-American.”

The order also recounts how Trump immediately used the lawsuit to raise money.
I guess Judge Middlebrooks didn’t like it when Habba went on Fox and called Middlebrooks a “Clinton judge”:

“Why isn’t [Hillary Clinton] being held accountable for what she did? Because when you have a Clinton judge as we did here, Judge Middlebrooks (who I had asked to recuse himself but insisted that he didn’t need to, he was going to be impartial) then proceeds to write a 65-page scathing order where he basically ignored every factual basis which was backed up by indictments, by investigations, the Mueller report, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, not to mention Durham, and all the testimony we heard there, we get dismissed.

Pro Tip #1: Don’t tick off the judge.

The order describes Trump’s complaint as a “hodgepodge of disconnected, often immaterial events, followed by an implausible conclusion. This is a deliberate attempt to harass; to tell a story without regard to facts.”

It’s basically what he did with the election fraud cases.

According to the order, Trump “consistently misrepresented and cherry-picked portions of public reports and filings to support a false record”. . . And it happened “too often to be accidental.

After establishing the political purpose of the lawsuit, and the fact that the lawsuit was frivolous by any measure (the allegations were “knowingly false or made in reckless disregard for the truth”), the court then recounts Trump’s history of filing frivolous lawsuits for political purposes: Trump v. Pulitzer Board, Trump v. NY AG, Trump v. Twitter, and more.

The pattern was always the same: After filing each of these lawsuits, his lawyers used the lawsuit as a talking point on right-wing media, and Trump used the filing to raise money.

The final 10 pages of the order justify the size of the sanctions, showing that the award is reasonable for covering the defendants’ costs and attorney fees.
If you want some more fun, here is the chart of how much money the defendants get:

I suspect Hillary will enjoy getting that check. Trump will hate writing it.
The court then addressed each possible objection to the size of the award. In other words, the judge wrote this order to make it appeal-proof.

Here is the good part: Trump and his lawyers are jointly and severally liable for the sanction, which means each party is independently responsible, so Clinton and the others can collect payment from any of them.

The court offered Trump an off-ramp. It’s in footnote #38: When reading court orders, always read the footnotes. Those are often the best parts:

“. . I believe the monetary sanctions imposed here are well within Plaintiff and Plaintiff’s lawyer’s ability to pay, and therefore I have not thought it necessary to conduct an intrusive inquiry into their finances. However, should Plaintiff or Plaintiff’s lawyer (and law firm) believe that the amount would seriously jeopardize their financial status . . . that individual or firm should file within ten (10) days of this Order, under seal, a verified statement of net worth which includes assets and liabilities. In the event of such a filing, the obligation of that individual or law firm will be tolled until further order of the Court.

I have a feeling Trump will not take this off-ramp.

“But Teri! What if he refuses to pay?”

This is not a bill. It works the same as judgment. You can’t avoid paying. The court can seize your assets. They can grab your bank accounts. You can be held in contempt. Courts have a lot of power. Never mess around with a judgment against you. For more on why see this post.

One lawyer on Mastodon offered the following suggestion to Hillary and the others for how to collect:

I’m talking to another lawyer about it and we’ve come to the conclusion that [Clinton and the others] should completely ignore Trump and elect to get all the money from Habba, which will entitle them to garnish the firm’s entire operations account, and force Habba to sue Trump for contribution or else face economic ruin. And then we all eat popcorn.

Meanwhile, if they don’t do that, they place Trump in the position of paying the people he hates most in the entire world a million dollars or filing something under seal saying he’s too poor to do so, when the whole world will see something filed under seal and speculate endlessly about how poor he is.

Someone on Mastodon asked:

“So the court doesn’t allocate payment if one or the other or both parties refuse to pay?”

Nope. Clinton and the other defendants can collect from any of them, and it’s up to Trump and his lawyers to work it out among themselves. (That thump you heard was me falling off my chair with laughter.)

Yes, this will make it harder for Trump to get legal representation when he most needs it. It has already become almost impossible for him to get good representation.
Trump’s lawsuit against the NY AG was included in the court’s list of lawsuits being filed for political and harassment purposes. That lawsuit is also being brought in the same court before the same judge that imposed these sanctions.
Well, on Friday, within 24 hours of getting hit with those sanctions, Trump withdrew his lawsuit against Letitia James:

Fun fact: Trump still refers to himself as “President Donald J. Trump” while the courts refer to him as Mr. Trump.

“But Teri! You’re overlooking the fact that Trump is voluntarily dismissing his claims without prejudice, which means he can just file it again, right?”

When a court dismisses your complaint with prejudice, it means that the complaint was so bad that the court does not want to see it again. Essentially it is such a mess that it can’t be fixed.

Even the stupidest lawyer would not dismiss their own complaint with prejudice. Why call yourself a moron? Certainly, he can refile it, but he’d have to find lawyers willing to risk a sanctions judgment against them.

I’ll bet you didn’t know reading legal documents could be so much fun.

Food for thought

An account that is unabashedly anti-democratic and pro-authoritarian said this in response to my FAQ page: People do not want a totalitarian surveillance state… until something horrible happens, and then they expect one.”

I thought this was an interesting comment and, unfortunately, true of some (but not all) pro-democracy people. The problem, of course, was that he was arguing in favor of a totalitarian surveillance state, implying that the result is inevitable because there is an inclination to demand one when things don’t go a person’s way.

How many pro-democracy people over the past 2 years have literally argued that the DOJ should dispense with rules so they can get the results they want? I had cross-words with one well-known TV pundit who insisted that Garland must reveal whether Trump was under investigation. When I pointed out that it was against the rules for Garland to do that, the pundit said, “Those rules were ignored in the past.” Right. And they shouldn’t have been.

Someone else responded to my FAQ page by saying, “We don’t want to become what we despise.” Yes. That sums it up well.

What’s funny (or ironic) is that people keep casting me as a DOJ defender. I’m a defense lawyer, people! I spent my legal career frustrated with prosecutors!
I am, however, pro-rule-of-law, even though I rarely got what I wanted.

Someone put this comment on last week’s blog post:

I have often thought of this as the fundamental political battle between the “lizard brain” and the “enlightened self-interest brain”.

The lizard brain wants immediate satisfaction and lives in fear (of crime, people who look different, etc.). There are always politicians who will appeal to the lizard brain because the payoff (to the politician) is clear and immediate: lots of support.

Meanwhile, the enlightened self-interest brain will always struggle to be heard. But we are lucky that the world and life are such that enlightened self-interest produces, ultimately, a society that more people want to live in.

It’s much easier to appeal to a lizard brain. That’s why rage merchants have the easier task. Rule of law is boring, slow, and cumbersome, and we don’t always get what we want.

Speaking of rule of law, did you see the exchange of letters between Jim Jordan and the DOJ?

Jim Jordan v. Rule of Law

Jim Jordan, who is now Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, wrote a series of letters to the DOJ demanding information about ongoing investigations. Here’s the latest. He and his friends who helped spread Trump’s lie and who supported his insurrection naturally have an interest in interfering with the DOJ’s investigation into the events of January 6, 2021.

The DOJ’s response is here.

Shorter DOJ: We follow rules. Rules prevent you from interfering with an ongoing investigation. It’s the same answer the DOJ gave when people demanded that Garland say whether Trump was under investigation. The letter basically says: here are the procedures blah blah blah. The DOJ letter also pretends that Jordan’s plan is to legislate (what Congress does) instead of meddle and interfere.

Isn’t it nice when rule of law can block MAGA interference with the DOJ investigation?

Think about this: Had Merrick Garland given into pressure and bent the rules to reassure people that certain people were being investigated, what grounds would he have now for telling Jim Jordan no, we don’t talk about ongoing investigations?

The way to save rule of law is with rule of law.

Read all of Teri Kanefield's incredible writing and analysis in her blog.