Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Has Trump Jr. broken the law?

Donald Trump Jr., when faced with imminent publication by the NY Times, posted the email communications that set up the meeting between Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort with a Russian lawyer in June 2016. The Times reports those emails but in chronological order in the invitation to Read the Emails on Donald Trump Jr.’s Russia Meeting.

Many sources conclude that Trump Jr. is in a world of legal hurt because of that meeting regardless of whether anything tangible was offered by the Russian.

Zack Beauchamp at vox.com provides a legal analysis of Trump Jr.’s troubles reporting that Legal experts say Donald Trump Jr has just confessed to a federal crime. (h/t AZBlueMeanie)

"The emails are simply put damning as a legal matter,” explains Ryan Goodman, a former Defense Department special counsel and current editor of the legal site Just Security. “The text of the emails provide very clear evidence of participation in a scheme to involve the Russian government in federal election interference, in a form that is prohibited by federal criminal law.”

Trump Jr.‘s decision to take the meeting in and of itself likely violated campaign finance law, which does not require you to actually get anything useful from foreigners. In other words, the mere fact that Trump Jr. asked for information from a Russian national about Clinton might have constituted a federal crime.

“The law states that no person shall knowingly solicit or accept from a foreign national any contribution to a campaign of an item of value,” Goodman tells me. “There is now a clear case that Donald Trump Jr. has met all the elements of the law, which is a criminally enforced federal statute.”

Why Trump Jr. may have broken the law

The statute in question is 52 USC 30121, 36 USC 510 — the law governing foreign contributions to US campaigns. There are two key passages that apply here. This is the first:

A foreign national shall not, directly or indirectly, make a contribution or a donation of money or other thing of value, or expressly or impliedly promise to make a contribution or a donation, in connection with any Federal, State, or local election.

The crucial phrase here is “other thing of value,” legal experts tell me. It means that the law extends beyond just cash donations. Foreigners are also banned from providing other kinds of contributions that would be the functional equivalent of a campaign donation, just provided in the form of services rather than goods. Like, say, damaging information the Russian government collected about Hillary Clinton.

“To the extent you’re using the resources of a foreign country to run your campaign — that’s an illegal campaign contribution,” Nick Akerman, an assistant special prosecutor during the Watergate investigation who now specializes in data crime, says.

Here’s the second important passage of the statute: “No person shall knowingly solicit, accept, or receive from a foreign national any contribution or donation prohibited by [this law].”

The key word from Trump Jr., according to University of California Irvine election law expert Rick Hasen, is “solicit,” which has a very specific meaning in this context. To quote the relevant statute:

A solicitation is an oral or written communication that, construed as reasonably understood in the context in which it is made, contains a clear message asking, requesting, or recommending that another person make a contribution, donation, transfer of funds, or otherwise provide anything of value.

Trump Jr. was clearly soliciting information that he knew was coming from a foreign source. Given that political campaigns regularly pay thousands of dollars to opposition researchers to dig up dirt, it seems like damaging information on Clinton would constitute something “of value” to the Trump campaign.

The solicitation bit is why it doesn’t matter if Trump Jr. actually got useful information. The part that’s illegal, according to the experts I spoke to, is trying to acquire dirt on Clinton from a foreign source, not successfully acquiring it. And his statement more or less admits that he did, in fact, solicit this information.

And all this now coming to light after months of denials by the Trumps and their press agents (as I blogged yesterday in Four stories and seven months ago team Trump began lying about Russian meetings).

BTW: the “everybody does it” defense is nonsense. Political campaigns routinely engage in “oppo research” to be used against the opposing campaign[s]. But the argument that Trump Jr.’s meeting falls within normal behavior falls apart when confronted with the solicitation statute cited above.

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