Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer who offered damaging information on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign has put him in potential legal jeopardy and catapulted him into the investigation of ties between his father’s campaign and Russia.
President Donald Trump’s eldest son may have violated election laws that prohibit campaigns from knowingly accepting from a foreign national money, contributions or any "other thing of value," which could include information or opposition research, election lawyers said. Two separate watchdog groups said they would file complaints about the Trump son’s meeting with the Federal Election Commission and the Department of Justice.
Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican on the Intelligence Committee, said the panel should interview the younger Trump as part of its investigation of Russian interference in the campaign. Donald Trump Jr. retained a New York criminal defense attorney, Alan Futerfas, to represent him.
“This is the first time that the public has seen clear evidence of senior level members of the Trump campaign meeting with Russians to try to obtain information that might hurt the campaign of Hillary Clinton,” said Senator Mark Warner, the top-ranking Democrat on the intelligence panel. “Rest assured, Donald Trump Jr. will be somebody that we want to talk to.”
The revelation now potentially draws the younger Trump into special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and representatives of the Russian government. Whether the meeting violated federal election law would depend on showing the younger Trump knowingly solicited or accepted information from the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, that could be of value to the campaign. The election commission — which is frequently gridlocked along partisan lines — also could decline to act.
The meeting last June was set up by an acquaintance of Donald Trump Jr. to provide information that could be helpful to the campaign, the president’s son said Sunday in a statement after the meeting was first reported by the New York Times. At the meeting, Veselnitskaya told Trump’s son, campaign manager Paul Manafort and son-in-law Jared Kushner that she had information on individuals connected to Russia that were funding the Democratic National Committee and Clinton.
Donald Trump Jr. said the information “made no sense” and the meeting ended after 20 to 30 minutes.
Attempts to contact Veselnitskaya were unsuccessful and an attorney for the younger Trump didn’t immediately respond to questions sent by email.
The president and his top lieutenants, including Vice President Mike Pence, have previously denied there were any meetings between his campaign and Russians. Their argument now is that the meetings weren’t out of the ordinary. The younger Trump responded with a sarcastic Twitter post.
“Obviously I’m the first person on a campaign to ever take a meeting to hear info about an opponent,” Donald Trump Jr. said in the post Monday. “Went nowhere but had to listen.”
The younger Trump said he would be willing to appear before the intelligence committee.
Lawyers and Republican campaign operatives say there is nothing routine about foreigners meeting with a campaign on such matters — and in particular with top campaign officials. Presidential campaigns typically would have an entire department dedicated to vetting venues, surrogates and meetings for political risks, as well as a chain of command to prevent freelancing and scheduling mistakes, said Kevin Madden, a former spokesman for Republican Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.
“A foreign source, or someone with a questionable background, approaching a campaign with a proposal would ideally receive a caution flag if those vetting and chain of command protocols are in place,” he said in an email.
While the Trump campaign was always a lean operation compared to a traditional presidential campaign, by the time the meeting took place in June, Trump had all but secured the Republican nomination and was gearing up for the general election.
A foreign national offering dirt on a political opponent should raise loud alarms, said one top Republican operative who asked not to be identified criticizing the Trump campaign. The person said it was not believable that Donald Trump Jr., his brother-in-law and Manafort would enter into such a meeting without even knowing the person’s name. The younger Trump said in his statement Sunday that he wasn’t told Veselnitskaya’s name prior to the meeting.
The watchdog group Common Cause filed a complaint with the Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission on Monday alleging that Donald Trump Jr. “in his role with the Trump campaign, illegally solicited a political contribution from a foreign national — in the form of opposition research he believed would be damaging to the Hillary Clinton campaign.”
The Campaign Legal Center, another watchdog group, said it would file a similar complaint on Tuesday. “There’s certainly strong enough evidence to open up an investigation,” Brendan Fischer, director of federal and FEC reform for the group, said in an interview.
Fischer said it seems likely that the younger Trump wouldn’t have invited Kushner or Manafort to the meeting if he didn’t think Veselnitskaya’s information was of value.
Kate Belinski, an election lawyer with Nossaman LLP, said she thinks the complaints are unlikely to succeed. FEC rules allow foreign nationals to volunteer their services to campaigns, she said, and Veselnitskaya offered the information to Trump’s campaign. According to his son’s statement, the campaign didn’t find it credible. “Can you solicit something that doesn’t exist?” she asked.
Another hurdle is whether negative information on an opponent has monetary value.
"I’ve never seen a matter where the FEC has actually quantified the value of opposition research," said Belinski, who served as senior counsel at the agency. “It’s difficult to say that this piece of dirt was clearly worth $10,000.”
Burden of Proof
“It is possible that a court could find that Donald Jr. solicited or accepted information, that was of value to the campaign, from a foreign national,” said Joshua Douglas, an associate professor of election law at the University of Kentucky. He added though that it would have to be proven that he solicited the information and it wasn’t provided unexpectedly.
Campaigns are often inundated with people offering to provide them opposition research on their opponent, which campaign officials feel they have a duty to at least listen to and then research further if they think it is something that could be of use.
“It would be campaign malpractice not to listen to someone who would have some info that might be beneficial to the campaign, that doesn’t mean you go off and run with it, but there is a responsibility to listen to people who have information relevant to a campaign,” said John Brabender, who has worked as a Republican campaign consultant for more than 30 years.
In his statement, Donald Trump Jr. said that Veselnitskaya had been referred to him by an acquaintance from the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow and that he wasn’t told her name before the meeting. Scott Balber, a lawyer for Emin Agalarov, an Azerbaijani singer who is popular in Russia, confirmed that Agalarov facilitated the meeting with Veselnitskaya, “an acquaintance” of the singer.
The Donald Trump Jr. acquaintance who set up the meeting was Rob Goldstone, a former British tabloid journalist and marketing executive who has worked with the Miss Universe pageant, according to the Washington Post. Goldstone didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Veselnitskaya told the New York Times that nothing about the 2016 campaign was discussed at the meeting and that she had never acted on behalf of the Russian government. Moreover, she told the newspaper, she never discussed the matter with anyone from the Russian government.
“We don’t know who this is and, of course, we can’t keep track of the meetings of all Russian lawyers either in Russia or abroad,” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters Monday on a conference call, when asked about Veselnitskaya.