There is an impression developing in the current reporting that somehow Donald Trump Jr.’s emails and activities with a Russian lawyer who claimed to have damaging information on Hillary Clinton are primarily a personal problem. But he was, of course, an agent of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, acting on his father’s behalf, when he arranged the meeting with the Russian lawyer. The younger Trump successfully invited to that meeting senior campaign brass, including campaign manager Paul Manafort. Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, and Manafort are included on the entire email chain reflecting in clear terms the Russian government’s support for the Trump campaign and the scheduling of the meeting so that a Russian government lawyer could tender negative information on Clinton.
This is not an individual venture of Trump Jr.’s that the Trump campaign can somehow disavow. While the individuals in question may not escape liability, the serious issue raised by the meeting exposes the campaign as an organization to criminal legal jeopardy. Any illegal solicitation of support from Russia is also the campaign’s illegal solicitation. It was for the campaign’s benefit that its leadership expressed interest in what the lawyer had to say.
Under campaign finance regulations, the meeting could without question be considered a solicitation (at least under the facts so far known). The law defines a solicitation to include any request for a contribution or “anything of value” from a foreign government or entity, even if the request is implicit in the circumstances rather than expressly communicated. The regulations provide specifically that the solicitation “may be made directly or indirectly,” based on all relevant factors, including the “conduct of the persons involved in the communication.”
Consider the email exchange Trump Jr. released on Twitter on Tuesday. The emails contained a clear offer of information from Russian government sources that might be helpful to the campaign. Trump Jr. responded, “If it’s what you say I love it.” That is, he would glad to have the content described by the intermediary for the Russians. He then scheduled the meeting to consider whatever the Russians had. All these facts together indicate that, rather than declining the offer and rejecting a meeting, the campaign was communicating its interest in receiving this negative material. For campaign finance law purposes, and in the words of the ban on solicitations, the campaign was issuing “a clear message” that the Russians provide something “of value.”
The campaign now must answer whether any overtures to Russia were part of a concerted effort to have foreign national support for the Trump candidacy. President Trump famously and publicly appealed to Russia for help in locating the deleted Clinton emails, but later claimed that he was only joking. And some have thought that perhaps Trump Jr. went rogue and acted, out of inexperience, on his own. But the email string released by Trump Jr., which was copied to the campaign management, followed by the meeting attended by senior campaign leadership, reveals a campaign aware of offers of Russian support and expressing eagerness to accept it.
Of course, the campaign is Donald Trump’s campaign, his authorized committee for seeking election to the presidency. Was he aware that the campaign was courting assistance from the Russian government? Will his campaign team all testify that on an organizational initiative so central to his electoral strategy, they said nothing to the candidate about these communications from and with Russia? The congressional investigating committees and Special Counsel Robert Mueller will now be probing for these answers.
Bob Bauer is a partner at the law firm of Perkins Coie and professor of practice and distinguished scholar in residence at New York University School of Law. During 2010 and 2011, he was White House counsel to President Barack Obama.