In the media’s mad rush to show Donald Trump Jr. did something potentially illegal by meeting in June 2016 with a Russian attorney, election experts are stretching mightily to fit federal statutes to the actions of President Donald Trump’s son.
The trouble is, there is nothing in the federal code to stick to Trump Jr. for his ill-advised meeting, according to at least one campaign-law expert.
Trump Jr. was lured into the meeting with promises of damaging information on the Democratic National Committee and then-likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
The attorney, Natalia Veselnitskaya, was a former prosecutor in Moscow in the early 2000s, but was not an official in 2016. The media have simply said she "has ties" to the Kremlin, which have not actually been shown in the present.
Still, her nationality raises a problem. As a foreign citizen, Veselnitskaya cannot donate to U.S. political campaigns. The lure of information — even though it is now widely reported she had none to give at that meeting — has been interpreted as a promise of "something of value" by election experts eager to taint Trump Jr. with lawbreaking.
Rick Hasen, a liberal law professor at the University of California at Irvine and author of the Election Law Blog, said the email chain between Trump and a British associate of Veselnitskaya prove solicitation of a valuable contribution.
"Looking at the emails, it seems pretty serious," Hasen wrote Tuesday on his blog. "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."
"Nothing prohibits a U.S. group from hiring a British ex-spy to write up a dossier of opposition research on an opposing candidate."
It was the meatiest legal claim that shot across Twitter and social media on Tuesday, as liberals and anti-Trump activists crowed about a "smoking gun," and even a "smoking cannon." Not only did The New York Times prove, after more than a year of searching, a Trump campaign-Russia connection — some kind of version of one, that is — they also tarred Trump Jr. with lawbreaking.
But there were a few problems with that wishful thinking: Veselnitskaya and Trump Jr. mostly spoke of U.S.-Russia relations. Second, political dirt, even from a foreign source, is not illegal in many cases.
Brad Smith, a former Federal Election Commission member and a campaign-finance expert, said Trump Jr. appears only to have made an unwise political judgment. The idea of any sort of campaign finance violation is not valid, Smith told LifeZette on Tuesday night.
"There is zero evidence that I know of that the Russians contributed to the campaign, or that the campaign accepted a contribution from the Russians, or that anyone asked the Russians to contribute to the campaign," Smith said in an email to LifeZette. "Do you know of any? For example, was polling data contributed to the campaign? Oppo research? Nothing went to the campaign. This is truly a none-zip-zero-nada situation, I believe. Thus, the campaign has not accepted or solicited a contribution."
Smith also said Trump Jr. would not be on the hook if the Russian attorney went out of her way to try to help the Trump campaign. That would be the fault of the Russian, not of the president's son
Smith noted that some election experts are arguing that Trump Jr. violated the prohibition on assisting an illegal act — which is a regulation, not part of an actual statute.
"But you have to aid or abet one of the illegal acts," said Smith. "So if there was no solicitation or contribution, you can't aid or abet it."
Further, the use of a foreign company as a service or product supplier is not illegal, Smith said. That's why it was legal for an anti-Trump Republican campaign, and then the Clinton campaign, to use the services of a former British spy, through the Fusion GPS research firm. (go to page 2 to continue reading)
Last Modified: July 12, 2017, 2:09 pm
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