Campaign legal experts on Tuesday said Donald Trump Jr.'s self-published email correspondence that arranged a June 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer in an attempt to get dirt on Hillary Clinton shows he violated a key campaign law.
In Trump Jr.'s email correspondence, he was told that the crown prosecutor of Russia "offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.
And it showed the information offered was "part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump," something that prompted him to respond, "if it's what you say I love it especially later in the summer."
Experts said there was a clear violation of the law in question, 52 USC 30121, 36 USC 510, which prohibits contributions to campaigns from foreign nationals.
"If these emails are not a hoax, they are the smoking gun showing that Donald Trump Jr. illegally solicited a contribution from a foreign national — in the form of opposition research against Hillary Clinton — as our complaints yesterday alleged," Paul S. Ryan, vice president of policy and litigation at Common Cause, said in a statement after Trump tweeted his emails Tuesday.
Common Cause, a nonpartisan ethics organization, filed a complaint with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and special counsel Robert Mueller on Monday. It came after New York Times stories about the previously unreported meeting of Trump Jr., Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, then-campaign chair Paul Manafort, and President Donald Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
The complaint requested that the Department of Justice investigate whether the Trump campaign and Trump Jr. solicited an illegal campaign contribution from a foreign national, a violation of the law listed above.
The law contains a pair of key passages as it relates to the Trump Jr. meeting.
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 email exchange showed the information was promised from a foreign national — in this case the Russian government — and would be presented by a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer. The line "other thing of value," experts said, covers opposition research or damaging information on another candidate.
Brendan Fischer, Federal Election Commission reform program director at the Campaign Legal Center, told Business Insider that the FEC has in past opinions interpreted the definition of "other thing of value" to include non-monetary contributions in relation to the foreign national ban.
"So getting opposition research or dirt on Hillary Clinton, or however they tried to portray it, would constitute a contribution both on the definition of a contribution and on the foreign national contribution ban," he said. "And then solicitation: Did Trump Jr. solicit the contribution? I think there the answer is also yes."
That leads to the second key passage, which reads: "No person shall knowingly solicit, accept, or receive from a foreign national any contribution or donation prohibited by" the law.
Regardless of whether Trump Jr. received any information, which he insists he did not, the solicitation of the meeting violates this statute, Ryan said.
"Whether or not he actually received that information does not matter in the eyes of the law," Ryan said. "Trump’s solicitation of the information is what constitutes the violation."
Fischer said the "knowingly" part of the statute is covered by the emails that made clear the purported information was coming from the Russian government.
"Trump Jr. knew that the information was coming from Russia," he said. "He knew he'd be getting something of value from the Russian government."
And, if Trump Jr. left the meeting with documents, that would constitute the acceptance of an illegal contribution from a foreign national, which Fischer said is "an additional violation of federal law."
"We don't know if contribution is actually made," he said.
Trump Jr., he said, seems "to be saying the information was nonsensical or non helpful, but certainly Trump Jr.'s story about what happened here has shifted drastically over the last few days, so we may find out more information about what the Russian government attorney did provide at this meeting, and it may indeed be that Trump Jr. received a contribution. Or that somewhere in the broader set of interactions between the Trump campaign and Russian officials that some contribution was made."
In an interview with Business Insider, Ryan said Trump Jr.'s blasé handling of the meeting and subsequent fallout of the Times story made it appear as if he "may have been unaware" of the legality surrounding the situation.
Or, it's "a statute he doesn't seem to care very much about," Ryan said.
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