WASHINGTON ― When Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, sought damaging research on Hillary Clinton from a Russian lawyer, he may have violated campaign finance laws against soliciting contributions from foreign nationals.
Campaign finance laws specifically prohibit political candidates and their associates from soliciting or receiving anything of value to benefit their campaign from foreigners. In addition, the law bans campaigns from providing “substantial assistance” to a non-citizen who is trying to improperly influence a U.S. election.
In his public statements to The New York Times and on Twitter, Trump Jr. clearly stated that he met with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a lawyer for powerful Russian oligarchs, at Trump Tower in June 2016 because he wanted to acquire negative information about his father’s Democratic presidential rival.
On Monday, Common Cause, a nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog group, filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission asking for an investigation.
“He did in my view violate the prohibition on soliciting a contribution of a foreign national,” Paul S. Ryan, a campaign finance expert at Common Cause, told HuffPost.
The alleged illegal contribution would be any opposition research that Veselnitskaya purported to have about Clinton. Campaign finance law defines “contribution” broadly. In this case, the opposition research would qualify as an illegal in-kind contribution. At least one past opinion issued by the FEC found that “information” could qualify as “something of value” that would make it an in-kind contribution. According to Trump Jr., the lawyer ultimately didn’t provide any useable information.
The ban on foreign campaign contributions also defines “solicitation” broadly. Both explicit and implicit suggestions from campaign officials that a foreign national provide something of value could be classified as solicitation. Even if he did not obtain the information as a contribution, as Trump Jr. has stated, he still sought it.
“He went into a meeting expecting to and hoping to get some good opposition research on Hillary Clinton, and he acknowledged that he was disappointed that this isn’t what happened at the meeting,” Ryan said in describing Trump Jr.’s stated intent to receive the contribution of opposition research from Veselnitskaya.
Common Cause’s complaint against Trump Jr. does not accuse the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, nor his former campaign manager Paul Manafort, of wrongdoing, even though they also attended the meeting. Ryan explained that since Trump Jr. claims he did not inform Kushner or Manafort of the meeting’s purpose, they couldn’t have knowingly joined the meeting with an intent to solicit an illegal contribution.
The complaint was sent not just to the FEC but also to the Department of Justice and special counsel Robert Mueller. Mueller, the former FBI director, is leading the independent investigation into accusations that Russian intelligence services hacked the emails of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chief John Podesta, and that the Trump campaign was involved in the meddling.
“It is up to special counsel Mueller to determine if this was illegal,” said Fred Wertheimer, head of the watchdog group Democracy 21.
What stands out for Wertheimer in Trump Jr.’s admission is that it is apparently “the first concrete example of the Trump campaign turning to Russians to try to influence our elections.”
Trump Jr.’s apparent solicitation of opposition research from a Russian national may also provide more evidence to bolster legal arguments that the Trump campaign violated the laws on aid from foreign nationals, corporations or governments.
Bob Bauer, a White House counsel under President Barack Obama and a longtime Democratic Party lawyer, argues in a series on the Just Security forum that the Trump campaign’s alleged law-breaking is “hiding in plain sight.”
Bauer argues that the Trump campaign had already provided “substantial assistance” to Russia’s hacking and information campaign by widely disseminating the information illegally obtained through the hacks. Trump clearly found the information valuable and he helped promote it. Trump mentioned WikiLeaks, the online site through which the hacked emails were publicly distributed, 124 times in the final month of the campaign and brought up WikiLeaks during the televised debates. Additionally, candidate Trump famously called for Russia to hack Clinton’s private email server, a statement that came less than 60 days after his son met with the Russian lawyer.
Both Common Cause’s Ryan and Democracy 21’s Wertheimer told HuffPost that simply relying on Trump’s campaign pronouncements would not, in their view, be enough to qualify as the “substantial assistance” that would be a violation of the law.
Trump Jr.’s meeting with the Russian lawyer, however, bolsters the case, Bauer claimed in a post Monday. He wrote that Trump Jr.’s admission that he sought opposition research from a Russian national “supplements” the legal argument “by corroborating that what the campaign was pursuing through private channels were the same goals ― help from the Russians — that were strongly indicated by the candidate’s words and related public behavior.”
The Trump campaign and the White House have repeatedly denied any effort on the campaign’s behalf to contact or cooperate with Russian nationals in attempts to influence the outcome of the election. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders reiterated this at Monday’s press briefing, saying, “The president’s campaign did not collude in any way.”