Donald Trump Jr.'s Russia Meeting Creates More Legal Jeopardy

  • Email chain describes setup for meeting with Trump loving it
  • Federal law bars foreign contributions to U.S. campaigns

Sen. Warner 'Absolutely' Wants to Talk to Trump Jr.

Donald Trump Jr. not only met with a Russian who promised damaging information about his father’s political rival, Hillary Clinton -- he also released an email chain that seemed to put to rest any question of whether the Russian government was actively pushing for a Trump victory.

That’s sure to provide fodder for congressional committees and special counsel Robert Mueller, who are investigating allegations of collusion between Russian operatives and the Trump campaign and it opens questions about whether laws were broken.

"You’d really have to have your head in the sand not to objectively realize that this could pose legal problems for Donald Trump Jr. and maybe others," said former federal prosecutor Jeffrey Cramer.

Trump Jr.’s legal challenges are two-fold. The email contradicts months of denials from him, his father, and members of the administration that there were any meetings involving members of the campaign and Russians about the election. It’s also a crime to knowingly solicit a contribution from a foreign national.

The June 2016 meeting at the Trump Tower in New York included then Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and current White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law. They met with a woman described in one of the emails as a Russian government attorney who had some official documents and information that would incriminate Clinton.

“This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” Rob Goldstone, an ex-British tabloid reporter who helped arrange the meeting wrote.

“If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer,” Trump Jr. replied.

Unwinding the Twists, Turns in Trump-Russia Probe: QuickTake Q&A

That comment might prove troubling legally, Cramer said.

“His words add strength to the argument that he was willing and, indeed, anxious to receive helpful information from someone he believed was connected to the Russian government,” Cramer said. “It may not end up with a criminal prosecution but this incident certainly gets them closer.”

It’d be up to the Department of Justice to decide whether to lay charges after determining whether the information would amount to a contribution and if Trump Jr. acted knowingly and willfully.

While many lawyers are trying to sell the idea that the information received by Trump Jr. was a “thing of value,” his attorneys could poke holes in the argument since “information” has never been legally tested in a criminal case as a “thing of value,” said Robert Weisberg, director of Stanford Law School’s Criminal Justice Center.

“The reason why courts have been reluctant to extend it to things like information is that at a certain point, a lot of things we just accept as politics would then be illegal," he said.

Trump Jr.’s Shifting Explanations

Mueller will undoubtedly examine the “weirdly explicit” emails in the context of his investigation into Russian hacking, unless he already has them, said Asha Rangappa, a former FBI special agent who’s now associate dean of admissions at Yale Law School.

Trump Jr. said he released the emails in order to be transparent. His father released a statement through his deputy press secretary, Sarah Sanders, saying: “My son is a high quality person and I applaud his transparency.”

Trump Jr. Interview

In an interview on Fox News Tuesday, Trump Jr. said he “probably would have done things a little differently” when he met with the Russian attorney. But he described the meeting as a “nothing.”

“I wouldn’t have even remembered it until you started scouring through this stuff,” Trump Jr. said.

Trump Jr. has “zero wiggle room” to deny that his contact was acting on behalf of the Russian government, and against the interests of the U.S., Rangappa said.

The president’s son may also face repercussions for potentially violating a federal regulation barring federal, state and local campaigns from accepting things of value from foreign nationals. Information might be considered to have value, although both Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer, and Trump Jr. denied any information was passed at the meeting.

“It’s not treason, but by the same token, it’s not benign," Cramer said, referring to the meeting.

Also not benign could be prior denials of contact, said white collar criminal defense lawyer Andrew Friedman, a partner in the Washington office of the Butzel Long law firm.

"My understanding was that he and a lot of other people in the administration denied having any contact with anyone associated with the Russian government and these facts seem to contradict that," Friedman said by phone.

While he stopped short of calling those denials criminal, the attorney added that oftentimes prosecutors build cases on smaller infractions, lying to federal agents and obstruction of justice.

"These are things that are often easier to prove than ‘collusion with Russian officials’ for example," Friedman said.

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