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Why It's Not Very Legal or Very Cool to Get Political Dirt From a Foreign Government

“Not only is it extremely unethical to do it, in many circumstances it’s going to be illegal”

by Greg Walters
Jun 13 2019, 7:19pm

WASHINGTON — President Trump thinks it’s totally cool to take dirt on his political opponents from foreign powers.

“There isn't anything wrong with listening,” Trump told ABC on Wednesday.

But Trump’s statement puts him at direct odds with his own FBI director and high-profile members of the Republican Party — and, depending on the details, U.S. law.

Specifically U.S. campaign finance regulations, which clearly seek to block foreign entities from providing a boost to an American campaign, although they also leave room for debate about when negative political information amounts to a forbidden “thing of value.”

The Trump team has benefited from that wiggle room once before, when it took a clandestine meeting from a Russian lawyer billed as bringing dirt on Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, at the height of the 2016 campaign. After reviewing that meeting and scouring the text of the law, Special Counsel Robert Mueller decided not to bring charges.

Still, legal scholars said accepting opposition research from overseas could easily rise to the level of a federal campaign finance violation, or conspiracy to commit one.

“Not only is it extremely unethical to do it, in many circumstances it’s going to be illegal,” said Peter Zeidenberg, a former prosecutor who was part of the special counsel team that brought charges against Scooter Libby, an official in the George. W. Bush administration. “It’s mind-boggling that, after two years of investigation, Trump is saying, ‘I’d do it all over again.’”

What constitutes a crime

When it comes to money, the law is unambiguous: foreigners are forbidden from donating money to American political campaigns, and Americans can’t ask them for it.

The statute makes it a crime for “a person to solicit, accept, or receive” a “contribution or donation of money or other thing of value” in connection with an election.

A “knowing and willful” violation of that law to the tune of more than $2,000 is a misdemeanor, while a violation exceeding $25,000 is a felony.

But “dirt,” of the sort that enticed the Trump campaign in the summer of 2016 is harder to put a value on.

Case in point: After Mueller investigated the Trump campaign’s June 2016 meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya at Trump Tower in Manhattan, he decided the situation was too hazy for him to slap down an indictment.

Veselnitskaya arrived from Moscow to tell the Trump campaign’s top brass, including campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Trump’s son, Don Jr., that “funds derived from illegal activities in Russia were provided to Hillary Clinton and other Democrats,” according to the Mueller report.

Don Jr. asked for evidence to support her claim, but that Veselnitskaya didn’t give him any, according to the report.

“There are reasonable arguments that the offered information would constitute a “thing of value” within the meaning of these provisions,” Mueller wrote, but ultimately he “determined that the government would not be likely to obtain and sustain a conviction.”

“What Mueller concluded was that if you know that you’re getting a campaign benefit for free from a foreigner, and you know it’s illegal, then that’s a violation of the law,” said Harry Sandick, a former prosecutor from the Southern District of New York. “But he couldn’t prove it was worth more than the specified amount, or that Don Jr. actually understood what he was doing.”

Beyond the nuts and bolts of what’s legal, the politics of Trump’s stance are hardly admirable.

Democrats pounced on his comments, while even fellow Republicans sought to distance themselves from his remarks.

Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Trump’s comments show he “does not know right from wrong. It’s a very sad thing.”

“The law is pretty clear. You can’t take anything of value from a foreign government,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said he told Trump after his remarks, according to Politico.

“Accepting the work product of a foreign government to try and influence an election of one candidate or another? It’s wrong,” said Republican Senator and former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. “It’s antithetical to our democratic principles.”

Cover: President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda in the Rose Garden of the White House, Wednesday June 12, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)