Memo: Trump Tower Meeting Was Not “Totally Legal”

NOTE: The short memo below was drafted by Paul S. Ryan, Common Cause’s Vice President of Policy and Litigation, to explain the legal jeopardy President Trump’s recent tweet about the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting puts himself and his campaign in.


On Sunday, July 9, 2017, the New York Times broke the story that in June 2016 Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, then-campaign chair Paul J. Manafort and others met with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer to obtain damaging information about Hillary Clinton.

On July 10, 2017, Common Cause filed complaints with the Department of Justice and the Federal Election Commission alleging reason to believe that Donald Trump Jr. and the Trump presidential campaign committee violated the federal campaign finance law prohibition on soliciting a “contribution” from a foreign national, found at 52 U.S.C. § 30121(a)(2) and 11 C.F.R. § 110.20(g). “Contribution” is defined at 52 U.S.C. § 30101(8)(A)(i) as “any gift . . . of money or anything of value … for the purpose of influencing any election for Federal office.” Opposition research is a valuable commodity regularly bought and sold in politics.

Yesterday, President Trump thrust this issue back into national media headlines when he Tweeted: “Fake News reporting, a complete fabrication, that I am concerned about the meeting my wonderful son, Donald, had in Trump Tower. This was a meeting to get information on an opponent, totally legal and done all the time in politics – and it went nowhere. I did not know about it!”

President Trump is wrong on the law. And he should know he’s wrong on the law because his White House Counsel, Don McGahn, is former Chairman of the Federal Election Commission and most certainly knows it’s illegal to solicit political contributions from foreign nationals. McGahn was counsel to the Trump campaign at the time of the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting.

President Trump continued to Tweet about this issue today, insinuating that Hillary Clinton is the one who broke federal law by paying foreign nationals for opposition research on him—alluding to the well-known Steele dossier compiled by a former British spy. While it is indeed true that the Clinton campaign may have violated a federal campaign finance law reporting requirement when it paid for the Steele dossier, the Clinton campaign didn’t illegally solicit or receive a “contribution” from the former British spy so long as the campaign paid fair market value for the opposition research on Trump.

When all is said and done, team Trump’s solicitation of a political contribution from Russians—in the form of opposition research on Clinton—may prove to be just one strand in a larger web of illegal activities by team Trump. Perhaps Paul Manafort or his associates will reveal more details about the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting as Manafort’s trial continues this week. Perhaps this is what’s driving President Trump to proclaim his son’s innocence via Twitter.

To view Common Cause’s July 2017 DOJ and FEC complaints against Donald Trump Jr. and the Trump campaign regarding the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, click here.