Mary Altaffer / AP

Representative Tulsi Gabbard today filed a defamation lawsuit against Hillary Clinton in federal court.

The basis for the suit is a comment Clinton made to the former Obama-campaign manager David Plouffe in an October 2019 podcast. Clinton suggested that Republicans were grooming an unnamed person as a third-party candidate. She added:

She’s the favorite of the Russians. They have a bunch of sites and bots and other ways of supporting her so far. And that’s assuming Jill Stein will give it up, which she might not because she’s also a Russian asset. Yeah, she’s a Russian asset.

Gabbard claims that the “she” in the above paragraph refers to herself, and not to Jill Stein.

It’s hard to take seriously Gabbard’s feelings of affront. Gabbard is herself one of the most vituperative people in U.S. politics. She replied to the Plouffe podcast with a multipart tweet that opened: “Great! Thank you @HillaryClinton. You, the queen of warmongers, embodiment of corruption, and personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic party.” Her lawsuit brims with rhetoric far more malignant than anything Clinton said about that unnamed person to David Plouffe.  

It’s even harder to take seriously the legal merits of Gabbard’s lawsuit. Gabbard is a public figure. To win a defamation suit, she would have to, first, prove that Clinton’s comment referred to her, then prove that Clinton’s statement was both false and malicious: that Clinton knew it to be false, or else recklessly disregarded its falsity. The case seems unlikely to survive half a minute in legal proceedings.

But then, much of Gabbard’s complaint reads less like a legal argument than a stump speech. It is not easy to imagine that any federal judge would look with much favor on the relentless boasting and self-promotion in a lawsuit that opens:

1. Tulsi Gabbard has lived her life with one guiding principle: putting the needs of others before her own. That’s why she joined the Army National Guard. That is why she campaigned for and was elected to the United States House of Representatives. And that is why she is running for President.

The 14-page brief crams in 13 references to Gabbard’s service in the Army National Guard.

Rather than being structured to convince a judge, the brief wishes to invite belief in an alternative universe where Hillary Clinton is running for president in 2020—and where Gabbard somehow presents an important obstacle to Clinton’s ambitions.

Tulsi Gabbard is running for President of the United States, a position Clinton has long coveted, but has not been able to attain. 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. Tulsi has been harmed by Clinton’s lies—and American democracy has suffered as well. With this action, Tulsi seeks to hold Clinton, and the political elites who enable her, accountable for distorting the truth in the middle of a critical Presidential election.

This kind of rhetoric could help build a mailing list among die-hard Clinton haters. But what does Gabbard need a list for? She’s not running for re-election to her House seat in Hawaii. Her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, always far-fetched, is now all but dead. She last appeared on a Democratic debate stage in November, and she scarcely registers in the Democratic primary polls.

But Gabbard has understood all along that pro-Trump actors hope to wedge the hard left from the mainstream of the Democratic Party, as they did in 2016, so that Trump can again win reelection with way less than a majority of the vote. Gabbard is entrepreneurially agitating to claim a piece of that action. As politics, it’s a dead end. But as a grift, it could pay.

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