Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer in Just Security Op-Ed:
President Trump’s Unsurprising Endorsement of Illegal Solicitation–His 2016 Campaign Repeatedly Violated Ban on Soliciting Foreign Donations
In an op-ed published today by Just Security, Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer discusses the Trump campaign’s knowing and repeated violations of the ban on foreign contributions during the 2016 campaign, as well as the key facts in the Donald Trump Jr. meeting with a Russian lawyer last June.
It’s not surprising that President Donald Trump believes that “most politicians would have gone to a meeting like the one Don Jr. attended in order to get info on an opponent” – his reference, of course, is to the infamous June 9 meeting organized by Donald Trump Jr. to obtain incriminating information on Hillary Clinton offered, as he knew, by the Russian government.
President Trump and his supporters keep trying to spin the line that there was nothing illegal about what Trump Jr. did.
That’s plain wrong.
Setting aside the question of criminal intent, the public record shows that Trump Jr. knowingly solicited “something of value” for the Trump campaign from a foreign source. Doing so was a violation on the federal ban on soliciting foreign support for a campaign. The fact that this was a foreign government, hostile to US democratic institutions, is not relevant to this legal analysis, though it is relevant to what we think of his actions as an ethical matter. Whether Trump Jr. actually received valuable information is irrelevant to the “solicitation” violation that occurred. In other words, the solicitation of a contribution, i.e. something of value to the campaign, from a foreign national is itself illegal, whether a contribution is or is not actually received in response to the solicitation.
According to an AP article a folder of information reportedly was given to Trump Jr. by the Russian government lawyer at the meeting. A participant in the meeting, Rinat Akhmetshin, said that the attorney brought with her a plastic folder with printed-out documents that detailed what she believed was the flow of illicit funds to the Democrats. Akhmetshin recalled the attorney saying “This could be a good issue to expose how the DNC is accepting bad money,” according to the AP.
This was just one account of the meeting and we do not know what was in the folder or what happened to the documents.
Whether that information in the folder was something “of value” to the campaign is a question that requires investigation. If it was and it was taken, then Trump Jr. and the campaign committed a second violation of not only soliciting but also receiving a contribution from a foreign national.
President Trump’s claim that “most politicians” would do what his son did means that the President thinks that most politicians would engage in illegal conduct by soliciting opposition research of value to the campaign from a foreign source, including a foreign adversary that has no respect for free and open elections.
The President’s position is not surprising, however, since his campaign knowingly and repeatedly violated the same statutory solicitation prohibition during the 2016 presidential election — by soliciting illegal campaign contributions multiple times from multiple foreign sources.
In June 2016, reports started surfacing that members of parliament in Iceland, Scotland, England, and Australia were receiving solicitations for campaign contributions from the Trump presidential campaign.
In response, Democracy 21 joined with the Campaign Legal Center to file an FEC complaint charging the Trump campaign with illegally soliciting foreign contributions and calling on the agency to send a clear message that foreign money is prohibited in U.S. elections.
The FEC complaint generated significant media attention. Multiple news organizations requested comments from the Trump campaign about the FEC complaint, putting the campaign squarely on notice about the illegality of its activities.
In July 2016, The Hill published an article reporting that “Donald Trump’s campaign is still soliciting illegal donations from foreign individuals” and is doing so “weeks after the campaign was put on notice by watchdog groups.”
For example, a member of Great Britain’s Parliament told The Hill that he had received three solicitations from the Trump campaign and stated:
Neither [Trump’s] sons nor anyone else has answered my questions about how they acquired my email nor why they were asking for financial support that I suppose to be illegal for [Trump] to accept …
On July 22, 2016, Democracy 21 joined with the Campaign Legal Center to file another complaint, this time with the Justice Department, asking for a criminal investigation of the foreign national solicitations to determine whether the Trump campaign was engaged in knowing and willful violations of the campaign finance laws.
At that point, the Trump campaign had been put on notice twice that they were breaking the law by soliciting campaign money from foreign sources. Nevertheless, they kept soliciting foreign contributions in violation of the solicitation ban, including two solicitations for contributions in September 2016 sent to Vincente Fox, the former president of Mexico.
To my knowledge, no action has been taken by either the Justice Department or the FEC on the complaints that were filed.
In the case of the Trumps, it turns out to be: Like father, like son.
Based on what we know about Trump Jr.’s meeting with the Russian government lawyer and others, here are three key facts that need to be considered in an investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Fact 1 On June 3, 2016, Donald Trump Jr received an email from Rob Goldstone, a British music publicist, with an offer “to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russiaand would be very useful to your father” (emphasis added).
The email continued, “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump – helped along by Aras and Emin” (emphasis added).
Thus, Trump Jr. was informed that he was being offered incriminating “documents and information” about Hillary Clinton that would be “useful” to his father and his presidential campaign. He was informed that the source of the information is “the Russian government” and that it was being offered by the Russian government to support his father’s campaign
At that point, the email should promptly have been turned over to the FBI to investigate an illegal effort by a foreign adversary to influence the presidential election. Trump knew at that point that the individuals on the other end of the email were foreign nationals—including Goldstone (a British national), the Russian lawyer, and Aras and Emin Agalarov.
Fact 2 Instead of going to the FBI, however, Trump Jr. responded by email to Goldstoneon the same day, June 3, saying, “if it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer” (emphasis added).
At that point, Trump Jr. is soliciting campaign-related support from a foreign source within the meaning of the campaign finance laws and is stating his preference for its timing to be “later in the summer.” Trump Jr. did not stop there. By his own admission in an interview with Sean Hannity, he said he engaged in “pressing” the Russian lawyer for the information during the meeting—which legal experts like Marty Lederman have called“the clearest cut case yet of criminal violation.”
Fact 3 On June 7, Goldstone emailed Trump Jr. “to schedule a meeting with you and The Russian government attorney who is flying over from Moscow for this Thursday.” (Emphasis added.)
At that point Trump Jr. was on notice that he would be meeting with an attorney representing the Russian government.
On July 13, Common Cause, the Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21 filed complaints with the Justice Department and the FEC against Donald Trump Jr., the Trump presidential campaign and others. (The July 13 complaints supplemented complaints filed on July 10 by Common Cause against Donald Trump Jr. and the Trump presidential campaign with the Justice Department and the FEC.)
The complaints alleged violations of the federal campaign finance laws which prohibit any person from soliciting political contributions, defined as anything of campaign value, from a foreign national, including from a foreign government or individual. Soliciting documents and information “to incriminate Hillary” Clinton clearly was soliciting something of campaign value to the Trump campaign.
According to the FEC complaint filed on July 13:
[T]he FEC broadly defines “solicit” to mean “to ask, request, or recommend, explicitly or implicitly, that another person make a contribution … or otherwise provide anything of value,” and includes “an oral or written communication that, construed as reasonably understood in the context in which it is made, contains a clear message asking, requesting, or recommending that another person make a contribution.
The FEC complaint also stated:
The [FEC] “in light of the broad scope of the prohibition on contributions from foreign nationals,” construes the foreign national ban to encompass the provision of anything of value, even if the value of such an in-kind contribution “may be nominal or difficult to ascertain.”
Common Cause’s Paul S. Ryan has a valuable explainer on the July 10 complaint here at Just Security.
Donald Trump Jr was informed by email that the meeting he attended was being held to provide him with incriminating information about Hillary Clinton and that it was being provided by the Russian government. Trump Jr. responded that he would “love” to have the information and to receive it later in the summer – in other words, please provide it. Thus, Trump Jr. made a “solicitation” of “anything of value” as those terms are used in the federal campaign finance laws.
The idea that Donald Trump Jr. did nothing wrong is nonsense.
Special Counsel Mueller appears to be investigating these matters as reflected in his recent letter to the White House requesting the preservation of all documents relating to the June 9 meeting.
Mueller should investigate the incidence, in part, as a potential offense under the campaign finance law and take appropriate action against Donald Trump Jr. and the Trump campaign for any wrongdoing that occurred. It would be fair and proper for Mueller to take into account the Trump campaign’s openly flouting the solicitation ban in the fundraising it did during the campaign, and the President’s more recent public remarks showing disrespect for this fundamental part of our election laws.
The role of the special counsel is to enforce the law, especially those laws that serve as the foundation of our system for running democratic elections. The June 9 meeting and emails preceding it were not isolated events. They fit into a broader pattern of ignoring the ban on foreign solicitations that Mueller would be right to take into account in the prosecutorial decisions he undertakes.
Fred Wertheimer is President of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that works to strengthen our democracy and promotes government integrity, transparency and accountability policies to accomplish its goals. You can follow him on Twitter (@FredWertheimer).
The Just Security op-ed was released on July 25, 2017.