A federal judge appeared deeply skeptical Friday about a lawsuit filed by a Russian woman who claims she was libeled in news stories and tweets tying her to former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
The Russian, Svetlana Lokhova, was on hand in an Alexandria, Virginia, courtroom as her attorney sought to convince U.S. District Court Judge Leonie Brinkema to reject motions by the defendants in the case to toss the suit out.
“I think you really have an uphill battle,” U.S. District Court Judge Leonie Brinkema told Lokhova’s attorney, Steven Liss.
Lokhova’s lawsuit, filed in May, seeks more than $25 million in damages from University of Cambridge academic Stefan Halper as well as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, MSNBC and intelligence analyst Malcolm Nance.
The suit alleges that Halper spread false and salacious stories to those media outlets about Lokhova’s interactions with Flynn at a 2014 dinner in England, while Flynn headed the Defense Intelligence Agency. Various press accounts that appeared in 2017 indicated that attendees at the event had concerns about Flynn’s 20-minute conversation with the Russian graduate student.
The initial complaint in the case used unusually crude language for a federal court pleading.
“Stefan Halper is a ratf—– and a spy, who embroiled an innocent woman in a conspiracy to undo the 2016 Presidential election and topple the President of the United States of America,” the lawsuit says.
Liss was emphatic Friday that nothing untoward has happened between Lokhova and Flynn.
“There was no closeness,” the lawyer said. “These reports paint the picture that she was acting as a Russian agent. … She’s not Russian intelligence. Nothing happened at that dinner. It was like a cocktail conversation after dinner.”
However, the judge said Lokhova’s involvement in the stories was minor. “Every one of them is focusing on Flynn,” Brinkema said. “Your client is peripheral.”
At the end of Friday’s hearing, Brinkema — an appointee of President Bill Clinton — halted all discovery in the case until she rules on the motions to dismiss.
“I don’t want the parties spending resources on discovery at this point. I’m putting the case on hold,” she said, apparently signaling that she intends to throw some or all of it out.
One key issue for many of the stories and tweets Lokhova has complained about is that they were published more than a year before she filed suit in May. Under Virginia law, a libel plaintiff has one year from the publication to bring a suit.
Liss argued the news outlets that published stories about Lokhova should be held responsible for “re-publication” every time others tweet out or link to the original stories, but Brinkema said that would eviscerate the one-year statute of limitations in Virginia for libel claims.
“Why should the law not be that the tweeter be held liable?” the judge asked. “There has to be some rule of reason.”
Liss said the nature of the internet has made it inevitable that stories will resonate for a longer period and the publishers are aware of that. “Once it gets into the stream of commerce, these devices allow [anyone] to republish it over and over,” he said.
Attorneys for the news organizations rejected that argument.
“That is the third-party’s responsibility, not the original publisher,” said Laura Handman, an attorney representing NBC and the Washington Post.
New York Times lawyer Dana Green said allowing suits over retweeted articles could create “perpetual liability” for national news stories.
An attorney for the Wall Street Journal, Seth Berlin, compared the situation to an attempt to hold the newspaper responsible because someone else cited one of its stories in a footnote.
Handman also noted that the focus of the stories was on Flynn and concerns some of his colleagues had about his interaction with Lokhova. “They were concerned about his conduct and his attention to her,” the attorney said. “We didn’t even name her. … This is not someone who’s been on the Post’s radar.”
Handman said the Post did name Lokhova earlier this year, but only after House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) mentioned interest in her case. Handman mentioned in passing that Liss is also representing Nunes, who has filed a flurry of libel suits in recent months, including over the Twitter account “Devin Nunes’ Cow.”
Two lawyers for Halper, Terry Reed and Bob Luskin, were also present at Friday’s hearing. The Cambridge University professor has been the focus of intense speculation about his ties to the FBI and, potentially, U.S. intelligence services.
In September 2016, Halper invited Trump adviser George Papadopoulos to London and offering to sponsor him to write a paper on energy issues.
Many intelligence experts have speculated that Halper’s invitation was at the behest of the FBI. Papadopoulos says Halper and a mysterious woman who called herself Azra Turk invited him to several meetings and eventually pressed him about whether he had access to emails stolen from Hillary Clinton’s account or campaign. Papadopoulos says he believes the woman was tied to the CIA, not FBI. Neither agency has commented on the claims.
Reed did not address those intriguing episodes Friday, but told the judge that Halper should be dismissed from the libel suit because there’s no claim in it that he had anything to do with any stories or tweets published in the year before the case was filed. He also said his client isn’t responsible for the speculation of others.
“No one has control over what someone else says on the internet,” Reed said. “There’s no pleading here that Mr. Halper had any involvement in any of these republications or tweets.”
Halper’s attorneys have asked for sanctions against Lokhova and Liss for filing a case that transparently lacks legal merit and for using “vulgar and degrading profanity” in the complaint.
Liss has replied in a court filing that the vulgarity in the complaint is a frequently used term for political dirty tricks and that Halper has a history of such tricks dating back to the Reagan presidential campaign in 1980.
The sanctions motion was also set for argument Friday but was not discussed.
Liss declined to comment to POLITICO after the hour-long hearing. Lokhova did not respond when a reporter attempted to introduce himself as she exited the courthouse.
Among those in the gallery at the hearing was an Alexandria-based attorney for Michael Flynn, Jesse Binnall. Binnall told POLITICO after the session that he’d simply stumbled upon the event while giving some visitors a tour of the courthouse.
Lokhova’s suit was initially assigned to U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis III, but was transferred to Brinkema this week. At the hearing Friday, she mentioned that she’d only received the case on Monday, but she offered no explanation for the reassignment.
Editor’s Note: Gerstein is a contributor to MSNBC.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine