Treason. Espionage. Collusion. Criminal Conspiracy. Illegal solicitation of contribution from a foreign national. These are just some of the allegations being thrown around after Donald Trump Jr. released copies of emails detailing the planning of a June 2016 meeting he had with a Russian lawyer with ties to the Kremlin on the promise of obtaining dirt on Hillary Clinton.
In the emails, the publicist who brokered the meeting tells Trump Jr. the meeting was part of a larger Russian effort to help his father win the presidency. “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” he said.
“If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer,” Trump Jr. replied.
The soliciting of Clinton information as well as his welcoming of a broader Russian effort to help his father opens up several legal fronts on which the president’s son may have to defend himself.
Here’s a breakdown of all the areas lawyers and legal experts believe Trump Jr. may be vulnerable and how much evidence supports those accusations. More could come out later, but this is what we know now.
It’s against the law to “conspire either to commit any offense against the United States, or to defraud the United States,” but criminal lawyers seem to agree that Trump Jr.’s meeting (Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner also attended) and the emails surrounding it aren’t enough for a conspiracy charge — yet.
Conspiracy requires criminal intent, illegal agreement, and proof of an “overt act,” according to the statute. Without knowing exactly what happened in Trump Jr.’s meeting with the Russian lawyer last June, it’s difficult to tell if there was any agreement, or any act. Even with the missing information about the meeting itself, associate dean of Cornell Law School Jens David Ohlin called the emails shared Tuesday “a shocking admission of a criminal conspiracy.”
Randall Eliason, a white-collar criminal law professor at George Washington University, was more reserved, writing in an op-ed that what we know so far “provides a pretty solid foundation.”
Again, it will be up to special counsel Robert Mueller to decide whether to build on that foundation.
Illegal solicitation of contribution from a foreign national
Legal experts and watchdogs believe there is a compelling case that Donald Trump Jr. could be guilty here. The experts say, however, that the penalty for such a violation is only up to a $10,000 fine unless Trump Jr. actually received damaging information on Clinton (he has said that the Russian lawyer did not provide them information).
“If Trump Jr. or Jared Kushner or Paul Manafort left that meeting with oppo research documents, then they not only solicited but accepted foreign contributions, which is a criminal violation, but we have no evidence of that so far,” Paul S. Ryan, vice president for Policy and Litigation at the watchdog group Common Cause.
Ryan petitioned special counsel Robert Mueller Monday to further probe the meeting to find out if Trump Jr. actually received any contributions from the Russians. If Trump Jr. or any members of the campaign took anything from the Russians, then criminal charges could possibly result in jail time.
“The criminal penalty provisions of the Federal Election Campaign Act apply only to violations that involve the making, receiving, or reporting of a contribution,” Ryan said. “The criminal provision just doesn’t mention the soliciting of contributions.”
But soliciting is covered under the civil statutes of the Federal Election Campaign Act. It is illegal to “solicit, accept, or receive a contribution or donation…of money or other thing of value” from a foreign national in connection with a federal election.
“The law refers to ‘thing of value,’ but it doesn’t have to be money; it could be a benefit,” said Richard Briffault, a professor in campaign finance at Columbia Law School. “We’re in that grey area that you could make a case that receiving info and encouraging them to engage in certain activities beneficial to the campaign or suggesting the focus be in one direction or another could be evidence of substantial assistance and solicitation.”
Espionage and treason
Espionage and treason — both serious criminal offenses punishable by long prison sentences and even the death penalty — are off the table for now, according to national security lawyers interviewed by VICE News.
There is no proof that Trump Jr. gave any sensitive information to Russian officials that could hurt U.S. national security, a requirement for espionage charges. And since the U.S. is not at war with Russia, treason charges are also irrelevant since the Constitution defines treason, in part, as providing “aid and comfort” to an “enemy.”
An “enemy” is narrowly defined as countries the U.S. is at war with or certain non-state actors such as al-Qaida, according to Carlton Lawson, a law professor at UC Davis who is also writing a book on treason. The U.S. is not at war with Russia.
Donald Trump Jr. may indeed have colluded with the Russians, but you cannot prosecute someone for “collusion” alone. The act of colluding could potentially touch on other criminal acts, like criminal conspiracy, but there is no “collusion” criminal statute.
“From a statutory standpoint, collusion is a legal term of art only in the realm of antitrust,” Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes and Susan Hennessey recently wrote in Foreign Policy.
“Collusion is wrong, but I’m not sure it’s a crime,” Amy Jeffress, a former top Justice Department national security lawyer in the Obama administration, told NBC News. “I just don’t see an easy crime to prove here.”
While collusion itself may not be a crime, that finding would open a political wound that could lead to impeachment.