If Trump meeting is illegal, then Clinton dossier is criminal too

President Trump has ignited yet another firestorm with a tweet admitting that the meeting in Trump Tower between Russians and his son, Donald Trump Jr., was an effort to gather dirt on Hillary Clinton. It contradicts the statement that Trump released to the media in 2016.

CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota and others declared that the tweet makes a criminal charge against Trump an “open and shut case.” It does not. It is not even compelling evidence of a crime, because it is based on an erroneous interpretation of federal election laws. What is most alarming is the failure, again, to consider the implications of radically expanding the scope of such laws just to bag Trump or his family at any cost.

{mosads}Early on Sunday morning, Trump tweeted, “Fake News reporting, a complete fabrication, that I am concerned about the meeting my wonderful son, Donald, had in Trump Tower. This was a meeting to get information on an opponent, totally legal and done all the time in politics — and it went nowhere. I did not know about it!” At the outset, there are a couple glaring problems with these public statements.

First, this is not “fake news” but serious news created by Trump and his team in issuing a clearly misleading statement to the New York Times, then issuing a false statement denying that Trump drafted the statement to the media. Trump attorney Jay Sekulow stated categorically that Trump had no role in issuing the statement that the meeting was only about “a program about the adoption of Russian children.” Sekulow belatedly addressed that over the weekend with the equivalent of a shrug and a statement that “in a situation like this, over time, facts develop.” He added, “That is what investigations do.” The problem is that Sekulow is not investigating his client but supposedly talking to him. The facts do not develop from a “no” to a “yes.” The answer simply changed.

Second, the president is only partially correct in saying that the meeting with Trump Jr. is “done all the time in politics.” The media has largely ignored that Hillary Clinton and her campaign spent a huge amount of money to fund the efforts of former British spy Christopher Steele to gather dirt on Trump, including information from the Russian government and intelligence figures. All of the outcries and expressions of shock by Democratic leaders over the Trump Tower meeting ignores the more extensive contacts and efforts by the Clinton campaign.

However, this particular meeting is not “done all the time” because it was uniquely dumb. Trump Jr. pulled Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner into a meeting with unknown participants connected to the Russian government in Trump Tower as members of the media meandered around downstairs. The irony is that the Clintons showed how this is “done all the time” with cutouts and third parties like Steele. Indeed, despite denials during and after the campaign, the Clinton team only admitted to funding the dossier after the media stumbled onto the paper trail long after the election. When caught, they simply declared it was done all the time as “opposition research.”

The point is that only amateurs would take a meeting after a cryptic email from a music promoter about having Russian government evidence. They should have informed the FBI and used lawyers as surrogates. They should have done many things other than assemble the Trump triumvirate and walk blindly into that meeting. If stupidity were a crime, Trump Jr., Manafort and Kushner would serve life sentences for doing so. However, crimes are defined by acts and levels of intent. More importantly, courts narrowly construe such definitions to protect the public from ambiguous rules that prosecutors can twist to indict anyone at any time.

Take the crime being proclaimed as “open and shut.” Before Camerota came to this conclusion, the CNN anchors discussed federal election laws that make it a “crime for any person to solicit, accept, or receive, anything of value from a foreign person or U.S. political campaign for the purpose of influencing any elections for federal office.” Thus, if Trump Jr. was willing to review evidence of criminal conduct by Clinton, it must be a type of foreign campaign contribution and, therefore, a federal crime.

Such logic is so inescapable that Camerota responded, “I mean, what more really is there to talk about after that one?” The answer is “a lot more.” The Russians setting up the meeting said their government had evidence of criminal conduct connected to the Clinton Foundation soliciting illegal donations. According to witnesses, Trump Jr. asked for the promised evidence but Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya said she did not have it and only wanted to talk about Magnitsky Act limitations on Russian adoptions. The meeting ended shortly thereafter.

If the Russians had evidence of criminal conduct by Hillary Clinton, her campaign or her family foundation, the Trump campaign had every reason to want to know about it. That is precisely what the Clinton campaign spent millions to do, talking to Russians and other foreigners investigating Trump. Indeed, under this interpretation of federal election laws, Clinton and her surrogates would be equally guilty in using a former foreign spy to gather information on Trump from foreign sources, including Russians.

Consider the implications of what the critics are suggesting. It would mean treating information as a form of political contribution as no different from money, for purposes of a criminal charge, even information about criminal acts by an election candidate. That would mean administrations could prosecute political opponents for merely attending meetings with foreign individuals to discuss the criminal conduct of a sitting American president. Democratic politicians could be charged if they reviewed evidence of alleged bribes or quid pro quos by Trump.

Indeed, it could be any foreign source, since the law is ambiguous. Does that not include foreign organizations like environmental and other public interest groups? How about journalists or lawyers sharing evidence of crimes by powerful politicians? Fortunately, courts likely would reject such an interpretation as a major threat to First Amendment freedoms of speech and even the press. So why are so many journalists and activists blind to implications of such an expansion? The answer is rage. We live in the age of rage, from Trump tweets to cable news crusades.

The latest media frenzy is part of the Newtonian principles that now guide both politics and journalism: “To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction.” However, journalists and lawyers are trained to avoid immediate involuntary reactions, particularly when the potential costs are so prohibitive. Responding to a sweeping political tweet with a sweeping legal interpretation is neither equal nor wise. In the end, the Trump Tower controversy is not based on “fake news” as claimed by the president, but the federal crime alleged by the media is based on fake law.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.

Tags America Democrats Donald Trump Donald Trump Jr. Election Government Hillary Clinton Investigation Jared Kushner Law Paul Manafort Republicans Russia

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