Legal Creep and Moral Fortitude (Part 3)

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We recently learned that Natalia Veselniskaya was not the only Russian in the meeting. A man who worked “counterintelligence in the Soviet military” was present as well. Rinat Akhmetshin was an intelligence officer in the Soviet Union. Akhmetshin is a lobbyist and his clients include governments and members of private industry.

We also learned there may be documents that were left with Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort. Were these documents left? Where are they now?

Legal Issues

Some people think the email and meeting was simply an effort to obtain opposition research. Put this way, the meeting is politics as usual. Do the emails or the meeting make Donald Trump Jr. legally vulnerable?

One area of vulnerability is statute 52 U.S.C. 30121, 36 U.S.C. 510 which says:

(b) Contributions and donations by foreign nationals in connection with elections. 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.

(g) Solicitation, acceptance, or receipt of contributions and donations from foreign nationals. No person shall knowingly solicit, accept, or receive from a foreign national any contribution or donation prohibited by paragraphs (b) through (d) of this section.

(h)Providing substantial assistance.

(1) No person shall knowingly provide substantial assistance in the solicitation, making, acceptance, or receipt of a contribution or donation prohibited by paragraphs (b) through (d), and (g) of this section.

What does “solicitation” and “contribution” mean in this statute. Brendan Fischer of Campaign Legal Center said a contribution doesn’t simply refer to money. “It could mean anything of value provided to a campaign, and opposition research does appear to be something of value.” It certainly appears to be solicitation when Trump Jr. says he loves it and asks “Could we do a call first thing next week when I am back?”

Norman L. Eisen is an attorney and a senior fellow with Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. Richard W. Painter is the S. Walter Richey Professor of Corporate Law at the University of Minnesota Law School and served as a chief White House ethics lawyer under George W. Bush. Eisen and Painter laid out the potential legal case against Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner in an opinion piece in the New York Times:

It raises a host of potential criminal and other legal violations for Donald Jr. and others involved, including his brother-in-law Jared Kushner; Paul Manafort, the campaign chairman at the time; and perhaps the president himself. These new facts are a critical inflection point in the Trump-Russia matter. But they should not be exaggerated: The investigation has much further to go before Donald Jr.’s liability, or that of others, can be finally assessed.

The defense that this was a routine meeting to hear about opposition research is nonsense. As ethics lawyers, we have worked on political campaigns for decades and have never heard of an offer like this one. If we had, we would have insisted upon immediate notification of the F.B.I., and so would any normal campaign lawyer, official or even senior volunteer.

That is because of the enormous potential legal liability, both individually and for the campaign. The potential offenses committed by Donald Jr., his colleagues and brother-in-law who attended the meeting, and the campaign itself, include criminal or civil violations of campaign finance laws. These laws prohibit accepting anything of value from a foreign government or a foreign national. The promised Russian “documents and information” would have been an illegal campaign contribution from a foreign government — and a priceless one.

Then there is the question of whether the statements of enthusiasm in the emails about the meeting (“I love it,” Donald 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.

Although we do not yet have enough facts to judge, Donald Jr. and others may also be liable for conspiracy with respect to espionage, depending on how any illicit information was obtained and the level of their awareness of any spying. Because the Russian campaign that followed was nothing less than an assault on our democracy, we understand why some are raising issues of treason as well. Prosecution under the federal treason statute is ultimately unlikely because we are not at war with Russia. But during the Cold War, treasonous conduct was often prosecuted under other statutes. (Alger Hiss was sentenced to four years in prison for “forgetting” in sworn testimony that he had met with Whitaker Chambers, an American working for the Russians.)

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