shadow

Trump Tower meeting draws attention to campaign lines of legality

Why We Wrote This

Political campaigns play hardball all the time. But where is the line of legality? And if the 2016 Trump Tower meeting may have overstepped that, why wouldn't the Steele dossier?

Brendan McDermid/Reuters/File
The evolving story of a June 2016 meeting between members of the Trump campaign and a Kremlin-backed lawyer at Trump Tower in New York may reveal legal jeopardy for a member of the president’s immediate family.

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The changing story regarding the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting may reveal legal jeopardy for a member of the president’s immediate family. It is broadly illegal for foreigners to contribute anything of value to American political campaigns – and it is illegal for Americans to solicit such contributions. For Donald Trump Jr., just taking the meeting with a Kremlin-backed lawyer might qualify as such a solicitation. Much depends on what they actually talked about. This is not an obscure, dusty statute. It was first passed in 1966, and strengthened in 1974 and 2002. But if the Trump Tower meeting might be a problem under this law, why wouldn’t the so-called Steele dossier be problematic as well? Christopher Steele, the ex-British spy who put together the dossier of allegations against Trump, is definitely a foreigner. At first glance the situations seem legally similar. The difference, Paul S. Ryan of the nonprofit Common Cause says, is that Mr. Steele was hired to provide a service (by Fusion GPS, the US firm paid in turn by the Clinton campaign). Paying fair market value for a service is generally legal. It’s contributions by foreigners that aren’t.

Of all the incidents in the Trump Russia saga, perhaps none has been as intensely scrutinized and speculated about as the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting.

Numerous threads of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation may run through the meeting between a Kremlin-linked lawyer and Donald Trump Jr. and other Trump aides. What was the nature of contacts between Russian nationals and lower-level Trump campaign officials prior to its occurrence? What was really discussed? Did it produce any sort of plan for further communication? What, if anything, did President Trump know about what happened?

The Trump team’s shifting characterization of the Trump Tower meeting may be important. Initially it was billed as dealing with the adoption of Russian children. Now the president has tweeted that it centered on possible Russia-provided opposition research about Hillary Clinton. He insists it was all “totally legal” – no big deal, the sort of thing common in politics.

In fact, the changing story may indicate legal jeopardy for a member of the president’s immediate family. It is broadly illegal for foreigners to contribute anything of value to American political campaigns – and it is illegal for Americans to solicit such contributions. For Trump Jr., just taking the meeting might qualify as such a solicitation. Much depends on what they actually talked about.

“I think they know they are in very treacherous waters,” says Chris Edelson, an assistant professor of government in the School of Public Affairs at American University.

News leaks in July 2017 revealed the existence of the meeting. On the Trump side was Donald Trump Jr., campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. On the other was Natalia Veselnitskaya, a lawyer with Kremlin ties, among others.

The Trump team had initially vehemently insisted that the campaign had no contacts with any Russians at all, Professor Edelson points out. That turned out to be untrue. In the wake of disclosures about the Trump Tower meeting, on July 8, 2017, Trump Jr. issued a statement saying the meeting “had primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children.” This statement did not mention that he was promised damaging information about Mrs. Clinton at the meeting, and had replied via email, “I love it.”

Trump lawyers and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders also initially denied that the president had written the statement issued in his son’s name, despite press reports that he had personally dictated it from Air Force One. In January, in a letter to Mr. Mueller, Trump attorneys admitted that Mr. Trump had dictated it. They defended it as an “accurate response.”

Then Sunday, in a tweet, Trump made his clearest and most emphatic statement yet that the meeting was to “get information on an opponent.” He added that it was “totally legal and done all the time in politics.”

Thus the story about the meeting from the Trump side has evolved, with hair-splitting at the least, and some outright falsehoods. This calls into question the veracity of anything else they might say on the subject, according to Edelson.

There’s a Latin phrase for that that expresses a common law principle: “falso in uno, falso in omnibus.”

“The idea is, if you can show they are not telling the truth about one thing, it makes it more likely that they are not telling the truth about other things,” he says.

As President Trump pointed out in his tweet, the acquisition of dirt on opponents is a common political practice. Presidential campaigns often devote lots of time and money to the practice. On Sunday, Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow pushed back against the notion that Trump Jr. and associates may have violated the law by meeting with a Kremlin-backed lawyer.

“Well, the question is, how would it be illegal?” Mr. Sekulow said in an ABC News appearance. “What law, statute or rule or regulation’s been violated? Nobody’s pointed to one.”

Critics say they can certainly point to one – the federal law that makes contributions and donations by foreign nationals to US political campaigns illegal.

It’s a law that is written very broadly, they point out. In a memo, the nonprofit Common Cause says that “contribution” here is defined as “any gift ... of money or anything of value ... for the purpose of influencing any election for federal office.”

The flip side of this is that it is illegal for US nationals to solicit such contributions. An invitation to attend a meeting where something that might qualify as a contribution, such as opposition research, is discussed could itself qualify as a solicitation. Further active discussion of collaboration of such material would certainly constitute solicitation, though there is no public evidence that any such talk took place at the meeting.

“In addition to those violations you could also be looking at conspiracy and attempted conspiracy to violate those bans on accepting and soliciting contributions from foreign nationals,” says Paul S. Ryan, vice president of policy and litigation at Common Cause.

This is not an obscure, dusty statute. It was first passed in 1966, and strengthened in 1974 and 2002. And someone on the Trump campaign in 2016 would have been very conversant with this law. Don McGahn, counsel to the Trump effort in June 2016, is a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission. Now he’s White House counsel.

But if the Trump Tower meeting might be a problem under this law, why wouldn’t the so-called Steele dossier be problematic as well? Christopher Steele, the British ex-spy who put together the dossier of allegations against Trump, is definitely a foreigner. At first glance the situations seem legally similar.

The difference, Mr. Ryan of Common Cause says, is that Mr. Steele was hired to provide a service (by Fusion GPS, the US firm paid in turn by the Clinton campaign). Paying fair market value for a service is generally legal. It’s contributions by foreigners that aren’t.

Consider catering, Ryan says. Federal campaigns hire catering services in cities all across the US, and it is almost certain that they are paying waiters or even catering company owners who are not American citizens. That’s not against the law.

One final twist: Foreign nationals can’t work for US campaigns and can’t be involved in campaign decision-making processes. That’s the issue with Cambridge Analytica, the British political consulting firm that sold data mining services to the Trump campaign. The company allegedly used foreign nationals to analyze and help decide what to do with its information.

“In that sense it gets pretty risky to hire foreign nationals,” says Ryan of Common Cause, which has accused Cambridge Analytica of violating US law.

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