The New York Times has now reported that Donald Trump Jr. agreed to a meeting with a Russian lawyer who had damaging information on Hillary Clinton after getting an email that the Russian government was trying to help his father win the election.
If that’s true, “it’s as close as you can get to a smoking gun” of whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, said Jeffrey Jacobovitz, a white collar lawyer who represented officials in the Clinton White House and now is with Arnall Golden Gregory LLP. And it could mean Trump Jr. crossed the legal line on collusion with Russia.
First, a reframing of the way we think of collusion. Collusion actually is a political term; there’s no line in the criminal code that says you go to jail for colluding with a foreign adversary.
But you can go to jail for conspiring with a foreign adversary to influence or undermine an election, and Jacobovitz thinks what the New York Times reported Trump Jr. did could rise to that level.
“You may have crossed the line on conspiracy to commit election fraud or conspiracy to obtain information from a foreign adversary,” he said. “You cannot benefit from a foreign adversary in this kind of scenario.”
What special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and his team of a dozen or so practiced investigators are likely looking for is evidence that the Trump campaign intended to illegally conspire with Russia to help their campaign/hurt Clinton’s. (Russia is also known for tricking people into doing their bidding.)
In legal terms, what Trump Jr. did with the information he knew about Russia, as reported by the New York Times, is a pretty clear intent.
“If he received an email in advance saying ‘This is coming from the Russian government,’ he’s certainly knowledgeable about where the information is coming from,” Jacobovitz said. “And he attempts to attend a meeting with the hope and intent to obtain inside dirt on Hillary Clinton. That would go a long way in trying to determine whether it’s conspiracy. … It’s not as if he walks into the meeting and he’s surprised by what he’s hearing.”
Another piece of evidence to stack up in the “intent” column: Why were two of Trump’s top campaign aides also in the meeting? The Times reports that Trump’s then-campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner came with Trump Jr. to meet with the Russian lawyer. It suggests that the Trump campaign put a very high premium on the meeting.
And it raises the question, as asked by The Fix’s Aaron Blake, of what President Trump himself knew about the meeting. (The White House says the president wasn’t aware of this meeting and denies any collusion by anyone in his campaign.)
More legal questions: Was anything agreed to in this meeting by either side? We know from both sides that in addition to sitting down to talk dirt on Clinton, there was a discussion about American adoptions of Russian children and sanctions the Russian government opposes against suspects of human rights abuses.
A month after the June 2016 meeting, thousands of emails from the Democratic National Committee were hacked, then leaked, on the eve of Democrats’ convention, which led the DNC’s chair to resign. Jacobovitz said Mueller and his team will certainly be investigating whether there was some kind of quid pro quo between the Trump campaign and Russia on sanctions vs. damaging emails to Clinton.
For what it’s worth, the Russian lawyer in the meeting, who has ties to the Russian government, threw the Trump campaign under the bus in an interview aired Tuesday with NBC’s “Today” concerning what they talked about:
Natalia Veselnitskaya says it’s possible Trump Jr. was “longing” for info on the DNC. “They wanted it so badly.” https://t.co/VApY0cLIo4
— NBC News (@NBCNews) July 11, 2017
Also worth noting: Trump himself has drawn a line in the sand of what collusion means to him, a definition he may come to regret. Essentially, the president has said, collusion is knowing about something going on illegally and not doing anything about it.
Under that definition, it appears the Trump campaign rocketed past its own definition. It’s not normal, and it may not even be legal, to meet with a foreign adversary expecting dirt on your opponent.
Jacobovitz said conspiracy to commit election fraud is the big legal fish Mueller and his team may be trying to fry. But they’re also likely looking at a whole host of laws that could have been broken under this scenario: quid pro quo with the Russians, bribery, potential perjury related to what members of the Trump campaign said under oath to Congress, and failing to disclose these contacts in official security forms.
“This goes further than collusion,” he said.