This post originally appeared on The WorldPost, a partnership of Berggruen Institute and The Huffington Post.
As Donald Trump Jr. released emails that implicate him, his brother-in-law and the former chairman of his father’s presidential campaign as potential partners in the Russian government’s effort to influence last year’s election, he also unveiled his first line of defense. But his claim that he and the campaign received nothing of value from their meeting with Kremlin-connected lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya is no defense at all.
As complaints filed on Monday by Common Cause explain, federal campaign finance law makes it just as illegal for the Trump campaign or any other American to solicit a political contribution from a foreign citizen as to accept one.
And the law does not limit contributions to money; anything of value, provided without charge or for less than its fair market price, is covered. That’s a common sense provision; without it, foreigners could intercede in our elections by providing candidates with airplane rides, hotel rooms and every sort of other service imaginable at no charge. All those goods and services would be just as troubling — and just as corrupting — as cash donations.
The emails make it clear that the Trump Tower meeting was a solicitation. While Trump Jr. apparently did not initiate the contact with Veselnitskaya, he pursued it energetically. His three-word answer — “I love it” — to a friend’s claim that Veselnitskaya wanted to provide the Trump campaign with information about Hillary Clinton gathered by the Russian government speaks volumes. And his emailed request for a call with Russian pop star Emin Agalarov — “could we do a call first thing next week” — to obtain the offered information on Clinton is an illegal solicitation of a contribution from a foreign national.
Also, remarkably, upon learning via email that Russians were offering opposition research on Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” Donald Trump Jr. expressed no alarm or surprise in his reply. Is it possible, or even likely, that team Trump was already aware of Russia’s meddling in our election, approved of such activity and may have even been coordinating with Russia on it?
After sending that message, Trump Jr. arranged to meet Veselnitskaya at his office in Trump Tower — just one floor below his father’s suite — and got Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, and Paul Manafort, then Trump campaign chairman, to join them. The evidence is overwhelming that he did so expecting that the Russian would furnish information gathered by her government that would embarrass Clinton and help the Trump campaign.
Both the Federal Election Commission and the Department of Justice have important roles to play in the enforcement of campaign finance laws. Illegally soliciting a contribution from a foreign national is subject only to F.E.C.-imposed minor civil penalties under the campaign finance act, meaning a small fine. However, with the complaint we filed, we’ve requested that the D.O.J. investigate the matter because it’s quite possible that a D.O.J. investigation would reveal that the Trump campaign was actually involved in making illegal contributions or expenditures, which would be subject to criminal prosecution and penalties — larger fines and imprisonment up to five years.
Other emerging evidence raises questions of additional possible illegal activity and in some cases indicates that the Trump forces were aware of and perhaps cooperating in Russia’s electoral espionage and knew they shouldn’t have been. Consider:
On June 7, 2016, two days before his son, Kushner and Manafort met with Veselnitskaya — and just hours after they set up the meeting — candidate Trump publicly promised to deliver “a major speech” within a few days “discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons.” He never followed through, but his promise hints that he was expecting to come into possession of information damaging to Clinton.
The June 9 meeting was initiated by an entertainment promoter who had longstanding ties to the Trump organization. In the emails, the publicist claimed to be acting on behalf of a mutual friend, Agalarov, who is the son of a real estate tycoon who had partnered with the Trumps to bring the Miss Universe pageant to Moscow and who The New York Times reports is sometimes called the “Donald Trump of Russia.” Considering those connections, is it reasonable to accept Trump Jr.’s claim that he never mentioned the meeting to this father?
In approaching Trump Jr., the publicist indicated he’d be happy to pass the information gathered by the Russian government directly to the candidate but came to Donald Jr. because it was “ultra sensitive.” Again, against that backdrop is it credible that the son wouldn’t have mentioned the encounter to the father?
On June 9, the same day as the meeting, candidate Trump tweeted what appears to be his first reference to “33,000 emails” missing from Clinton’s private server. He previously had referred to “30,000 emails” but stuck with the 33,000 figure through the rest of the campaign. Where did the other 3,000 messages come from?
On July 27, roughly six weeks after the meeting, Trump Sr. publicly encouragedRussian intelligence services to steal and release any Clinton emails they could obtain. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he said. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
President Trump’s son-in-law Kushner, now a senior White House official, omitted the June 9 meeting from the original disclosure form he submitted in advance of receiving the security clearance required for his new job. He has since amended the form, claiming the meeting slipped his mind. But as Jeffrey Toobin asked this week in an essay for The New Yorker, “Could Kushner seriously contend that a meeting set up with an email heading ‘Russian – Clinton – private and confidential’ simply slipped his mind?”
Trump Jr’s release of the emails, now hailed by his father as evidence of his transparency and innocence, came only after reporters for The New York Times informed him that they were about to publish the messages. It followed months of denials by all the meeting participants, and by candidate and President Trump, that they were aware of Russian interference in the election.
Even after praising his son’s transparency, the president has made no move to release his own emails or to call on others in his family and senior members of his campaign team to make their email records available for public review. It’s possible those files have been turned over to the FBI and special counsel Robert Mueller, now leading the criminal investigation into Russia’s activities and the campaign’s possible involvement, but that wouldn’t prevent a parallel, public release — the same kind of release Trump demanded of Clinton last year.
At the very least, all this adds up to a compelling case for more digging, by special counsel Mueller, congressional investigators, the F.E.C., the press and by a yet-to-be-created independent commission like the ones that investigated the Kennedy assassination and the September 11 attacks.
A sneak attack on our democratic process by a foreign adversary demands that kind of attention. I don’t often agree with Dick Cheney, in fact I think this is a first, but the former vice president is correct in asserting that the Russian attack is equivalent to an act of war.
And yet the president continues to call it a witch hunt. Sad.
Office: Common Cause National