WASHINGTON — The email to Donald Trump Jr. just before the general election campaign offered a meeting with a Russian lawyer who would provide incriminating information about Hillary Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
The younger Trump wrote back: “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”
While every campaign seeks damaging information on political opponents, the interaction between the president’s son and a foreign national represents a departure from the norm. Legal experts are divided on whether what happened could be a crime.
Here is a quick primer on the issue:
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE MEETING?
Details of the previously unknown meeting on June 9, 2016, between attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya, Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort emerged over the weekend. Kushner, who is Trump’s son-in-law and was a key figure in the campaign, and Manafort, a campaign chief, attended at Trump Jr.’s request.
An email exchange Trump Jr. posted to Twitter on Tuesday gives more details about why the meeting was arranged. A music publicist friendly with the Trump family said in those emails that Russia was supportive of the Trump campaign and that a “Russian government attorney” had dirt on Clinton to share.
The emails included a message from the publicist, that the attorney had “some official documents and information” to provide, but Trump Jr. said he received nothing.
DOES THIS SHOW THE CAMPAIGN COLLUDED WITH THE RUSSIANS?
First, it’s important to remember that there’s no law, per se, against “collusion.” Trump advocates have been reminding people of this for weeks. However, some attorneys say that the events described in the emails could amount to a conspiracy to break campaign finance law.
Jeffrey Jacobovitz, a criminal defense attorney who represented White House officials during the independent counsel investigation of President Bill Clinton, said Trump Jr. and others involved in the meeting are “exposed to the conspiracy to commit election fraud.” He said they appeared to be working together to illegally solicit a foreign campaign contribution in the form of opposition research.
WAIT, DON’T ALL CAMPAIGNS SEEK OPPOSITION RESEARCH?
Trump Jr. made this argument Monday on Twitter, writing sarcastically, “Obviously I’m the first person on a campaign to ever take a meeting to hear info about an opponent … went nowhere but had to listen.”
Indeed, presidential campaigns typically have entire teams of employees devoted to digging up dirt on their opponents. And longtime political strategists recall being inundated with offers from all sorts of people to share tips that campaigns might find useful.
SO WHAT MAKES THIS DIFFERENT?
No one has stepped forward to say they experienced anything quite like the Trump Jr. interaction with the Russian lawyer at Trump Tower in New York.
Terry Sullivan, who was Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign manager, wrote on Twitter, “Running @marcorubio camp lots of random people asked to meet to share ‘secret oppo’ I was just never dumb enough to meet w/ them.” He added: #ButWeLost
Campaigns tend to be timid about handling materials that could have been obtained illegally. When a former congressman helping Al Gore prepare for a presidential debate received an unsolicited package of George W. Bush’s debate preparation materials, he turned it over to the FBI.
WHAT ABOUT THE INTERACTIONS COULD BE ILLEGAL?
Foreign nationals are prohibited from providing “anything of value” to campaigns, and that same law also bars solicitation of such assistance. The law typically applies to monetary campaign contributions, but courts might consider information such as opposition research to be something of value.
Larry Noble, a former general counsel to the Federal Election Commission, said the newly released emails “put meat on the bones” of a possible criminal campaign finance violation. The emails show that the younger Trump knew the Russian government was offering the information and “give a clear indication he was soliciting it.” As for whether the offer involved something of “value,” Noble said that could be established if the Russians put resources into obtaining the information or even sent anyone over to relay it to the Trump campaign.
Noble, Jacobovitz and other lawyers argue that the Trump campaign saved money by not having to do that opposition research on its own, arguing that what Russia offered was essentially an “in-kind” campaign contribution. The goods don’t need to have been delivered, they say, to trigger the solicitation provision.
DOES EVERYONE AGREE ON THAT?
Tom Fitton, president of the conservative Judicial Watch, said “it would be an absurdist interpretation of the law” to consider what Trump Jr. did a crime. “The law does not cover talking politics,” he said. “If it did, pretty much every political meeting would be considered an in-kind contribution that needs to be reported.”
Bradley A. Smith, a former Bill Clinton-appointed Republican Federal Election Commission member, also says “a meeting does not a conspiracy make.”
Opposition research might have a marketable value, he said. “But if someone simply comes to the campaign and says, ‘I have some information you might find interesting,’ I don’t think we’ve had a solicitation by the candidate or campaign.”
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
There are multiple probes into the Trump campaign and its interactions with Russia during the 2016 election, led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and by Senate and House committees.
Trump Jr., who hired an attorney this week, said Monday that he is “happy to work with the committee to pass on what I know,” referencing the Senate intelligence committee. Kushner and Manafort agreed weeks ago to cooperate with the congressional probes.