Donald Trump Jr.’s emails that disclosed a meeting with a Russian operative offering negative information on Hillary Clinton exploded this week and triggered new questions about possible election law violations.
The email chain, posted on Trump Jr.’s Twitter account shortly after The New York Times told him that it planned to release copies, began with an outreach to the younger Trump by Rob Goldstone, a British entertainment publicist who knew the president. Goldstone said he had been contacted by another friend of the president, Russian singer Emin, whose father had been told by a senior Russian government official that they had incriminating documents on Clinton that would be “very useful” to then-candidate Donald Trump.
“This is obviously very high-level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” Goldstone wrote. Trump Jr. replied: “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”
On June 9, Trump Jr., his brother-in-law Jared Kushner and then-campaign chief Paul Manafort met with a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, in New York. Trump Jr. later said nothing came of the meeting.
“In retrospect, I probably would have done things a little differently,” Trump Jr. told Fox News anchor Sean Hannity on Tuesday night. “For me, this was opposition research.” On Wednesday, President Trump weighed in on Twitter—resorting to his “greatest Witch Hunt in political history” line.
Alan Futerfas, a lawyer for Trump Jr., said in a statement that the emails were “much ado about nothing.” Kushner’s lawyers, led by Jamie Gorelick and Abbe Lowell, reportedly found Trump Jr.’s emails.
Comments from veteran election law attorneys, however, suggest otherwise or at least raise more questions for Special Counsel Robert Mueller III’s team. What follows is a snapshot of some of what lawyers are telling us and saying around the web about the legal significance of the newly disclosed emails.
Robert Bauer, Perkins Coie, former President Barack Obama White House counsel: “People tend to view this as an individual issue for Donald Trump Jr. There’s a question of his own
personal liability or the liability of Mr. [Jared] Kushner and [former campaign chair Paul] Manafort. They’re agents of the campaign: They’re speaking for the campaign, they’re holding a meeting at Trump Tower. I think that one of the things to keep in mind about the exchange of emails today is that it opens up the question of campaign organization liability. That is to say, the campaign as an entity. That, of course, brings it a lot closer to President Trump.” [Q&A in New York magazine]
Charlie Spies, a campaign finance lawyer at Clark Hill: “A few, unhinged liberal lawyers have put forth the theory that there’s a campaign finance violation, but there is zero precedent or legal authority to back up that claim. Based on public information, the conversation regarding potential negative information did not meet the standard for a solicitation, and also does not have a provable value, which would be necessary in a campaign finance context.” [The Washington Post]
Norm Eisen and Richard Painter, former White House ethics officials: “[T]here is the question of whether the statements of enthusiasm in the emails about the meeting [“I love it,” Trump Jr. wrote] constituted assent on behalf of the Trump campaign to continuing Russian help. Welcoming the information and taking the meeting can reasonably be understood to signal a broader receptivity to Russian aid. This is even more serious than the campaign finance violation because it brings conspiracy law into play. That could make Donald Jr. and others liable for all of the Russian dirty tricks that followed, including any Russian cybercrimes or other crimes targeting the Clinton campaign.” [The New York Times, op-ed]
Jan Baran, Wiley Rein, co-chair election law and government ethics: “I have a hard time seeing how a meeting is a contribution from a foreign national. It’s not concrete. It doesn’t have a quantifiable value.” [Los Angeles Times]
Barak Cohen, Perkins Coie: “The emails tell me that he’s aware that the Russian government is trying to influence the election in favor of Trump, and they also indicate an intent, at least on the part of Donald Trump Jr., to entertain the idea of working with the Russians in their efforts,” said Barak Cohen, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice at Perkins Coie. “It raises a number of potential areas of liability.” [The Washington Post]
Jens David Ohlin, Cornell Law School: “It’s a shocking admission of a criminal conspiracy. The conversation will now turn to whether President Trump was personally involved or not. But the question of the campaign’s involvement appears settled now. The answer is yes.” [ABC News]
Richard Hasen, University of California, Irvine School of Law: “It is illegal for a person to solicit a contribution to a campaign from a foreign individual or entity. Hard
to see how there is not a serious case here of solicitation. Trump Jr. appears to have knowledge of the foreign source and is asking to see it. As I explained earlier, such information can be considered a ‘thing of value’ for purposes of the campaign finance law.” [Election Law Blog]
Bradley Smith, Capital University Law School, former Republican member of the Federal Election Commission: “Right now the speculation and charges are running well out ahead of the evidence. There is no evidence of a contribution to the campaign. There is no evidence of a solicitation of a donation (taking a meeting to learn what someone might have or want to say certainly does not constitute a solicitation, even if you hope to gain something; also note that it is not a contribution when someone pays for something of value—for example, it is not a contribution or expenditure by a foreign entity when a U.S. operation hires a British ex-spy to prepare a ‘dossier’ on a candidate); there was no assistance in making an expenditure. If anyone is actually arguing (as opposed to speculating) otherwise, I’d love to hear it. I keep reading these stories, and it’s just not there.
There is also a question as to whether there was ‘anything of value’ at issue, but I see that question, while a legit issue to debate, as a bit of a red herring right now, because first you need to have a contribution or a solicitation, or assistance in making an expenditure, and we don’t have that (at least not yet). So right now I don’t see anything of legal consequence. Of course, I would expect the special counsel to look further, and more may turn up. And legal consequences and political consequences don’t operate on the same standard.”
Brendan Fischer, director, federal and FEC reform program at Campaign Legal Center: “The emails established that Don Jr. knew that opposition research—a potential in-kind campaign contribution—was coming from the Russian government, and that Don Jr. solicited that information and arranged and attended a meeting to receive it. Even if nothing of value was exchanged, it is still illegal to knowingly solicit a contribution from a foreign national, and at a minimum the emails suggest that is what happened here.”
C. Ryan Barber in Washington contributed to this report.
An earlier version of this story misidentified one of the Trump campaign officials who attended the New York meeting. It was Paul Manafort, not Reince Priebus.