Trump Jr. may have violated campaign laws, say legal experts
Leigh Vogel/WireImage(WASHINGTON) — Donald Trump Jr. has come back swinging after news broke on Sunday that he, along with President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and the president’s then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort, met with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya.
On Monday, Trump Jr. tweeted: “Obviously I’m the first person on a campaign to ever take a meeting to hear info about an opponent… went nowhere but had to listen.”
Trump Jr. said on Sunday in a statement received by ABC News: “I was asked to have a meeting by an acquaintance I knew from the 2013 Miss Universe pageant with an individual who I was told might have information helpful to the campaign.”
“I was not told her name prior to the meeting. I asked Jared and Paul to attend but told them nothing of the substance,” the statement read. “We had a meeting in June 2016. After pleasantries were exchanged, the woman stated that she had information that individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting [Hillary] Clinton.”
“[Veselnitskaya’s] statements were vague, ambiguous and made no sense. No details or supporting information was provided or even offered. It quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information,” he said.
Trump added that his father knew nothing of the meeting, and the president’s personal legal team said President Trump did not attend the meeting and had not been aware of it.
Meeting “warrants investigation,” said experts
Legal experts told ABC News that, based on news reports, it “warrants investigation” into whether Trump Jr., Kushner and Manafort violated any laws.
“This new information provides grist for the mill under the federal election laws,” said Kenneth Gross, a campaign law lawyer with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP.
These laws prohibit anyone from “soliciting” or “accepting” any campaign contribution from a foreign national or a foreign government.
“No person shall knowingly solicit, accept, or receive from a foreign national any contribution or donation…,” according to 11 CFR 110.20 (g). The contribution can be “anything of value,” and that includes the sharing of negative information about a political opponent.
Election laws also make it unlawful to “provide substantial assistance in the solicitation, making, acceptance, or receipt of a contribution or donation,” according to 11 CFR 110.20 (h).
Experts said that it can be difficult to determine when unlawful “solicitation” has occurred, as there is little established law or precedent in this area.
Simply attending the meeting with Veselnitskaya almost certainly was not enough to qualify, said experts.
There are “no magic words” to turn this into solicitation, said Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University School of Law. “You have to look at the context. Was Don Jr. attempting to induce someone?” she added.
To make this unlawful, Trump, Kushner and Manafort would have to “ask for something, and it would have to be an express or implied ask,” said Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine. And they would have to know who they were meeting with, Hasen said.
If, in fact, Veselnitskaya had no information to offer on Clinton, as Trump has claimed, that should not matter for purposes of solicitation.
“If I offer a judge $1 million to decide a case my way, that’s a crime, even if judge says no and no money changes hands. Solicitation is enough,” Hasen pointed out in a tweet.
“Solicitation need not be successful in order to be illegal,” Bob Bauer, a former White House counsel under President Barack Obama, wrote in a blog post.
Accepting a contribution
If Trump, Kushner and Manafort did in fact accept information on Clinton from Veselnitskaya, then a legal case against them would be fairly clear cut, said legal experts.
Prosecutors would need to show that a foreign national or foreign government spent some money to obtain the research or information on Clinton, and that these Americans knowingly accepted it.
Hypothetically, how could this be prosecuted?
If there was a violation of these laws, the Federal Election Committee (FEC) could potentially bring a civil action against Trump, Kushner or Manafort. The FEC has the power to impose a fine or bring an administrative action.
Violations of these campaign finance laws can, in dramatic cases, constitute a crime, even a felony. Prosecutors with the Department of Justice would have the very high bar of proving criminal intent and that these Trump associates acted “knowingly” and “willfully.”
How else could this be unlawful?
Trump, Kushner and Manafort could also face legal exposure if there was evidence that they lied under oath, gave the government false information, or failed to report certain campaign activities, said experts.
“The slogan ‘the cover up is worse than the crime’ could certainly apply here,” said Clark.
This meeting, said experts, could also be wrapped into other pending or future investigations of Russian election meddling, obstruction of justice, collusion or conspiracy cases.
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