Meeting Russians for dirt on Clinton? It may be immoral but it’s not illegal

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(CNN)The President’s son, Donald Trump Jr., has served up yet another juicy morsel of staggeringly inappropriate behavior by the Trump campaign, once again focusing public attention on allegations of a Trump-Russia connection.

Trump Jr. exposed his own participation in a controversial campaign encounter, as well as its damaging details, Tuesday by tweeting an email chain that suggests a direct link between high ranking Trump campaign officials — including himself, the President’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and former campaign manager, Paul Manafort — and the Russian government.
Trump Jr.’s tweets appeared to be a futile attempt to get in front of imminent publication of the same email material by the New York Times.
    The email chain suggests that in early June of 2016, after then-candidate Trump had locked up the Republican presidential nomination, Donald Trump Jr. was told in writing by a Russian publicist friend, Rob Goldstone, that a Russian pop star, Emin, had advised him that the Russian “Crown prosecutor” was prepared to supply “high level and sensitive information” that would “incriminate” Hillary Clinton though a “Russian government attorney.”
    Almost as an aside, Trump the younger was advised that the documents were being supplied as a “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” The statement of support had the eerie feel of an endorsement of the Trump candidacy. Trump Jr.’s repy: “…if it’s what you say I love it.”
    The emails further showed Goldstone and Trump Jr.’s exchanges as they made arrangements for a meeting with the Russian lawyer, later identified as Natalia Veselnitskaya. Trump Jr. told Goldstone to expect Jared Kushner — who would eventually become a presidential adviser — and then-campaign manager Paul Manafort to attend.
    Soon after, this high level trio met with Veselnitskaya.
    Donald Trump Jr. had initially claimed that the meeting was to discuss a program for American adoption of Russian children that Russia had suspended in response to US sanctions. Faced with the New York Times disclosure, he changed his story, now asserting that, though the emails suggested that incriminating Hillary material was to be supplied by a Russian government lawyer, only Russian adoption policies ended up being discussed with Ms. Veselnitskaya.
    Later, in an interview with NBC News, Veselnitskaya denied a connection to the Russian government and also asserted that she discussed only the US-Russian sanctions and not Hillary Clinton.
    Why the enormous media interest in this story? For months, the President and his surrogates adamantly, angrily and repeatedly denied any contacts with Russian officials. Later this position morphed into the claim that although there had been meetings with Russians, they were so inconsequential that they had been left off security clearance disclosures by Trump campaign participants, such as now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
    The latest variation on the story seems to be that, yes, there were meetings, but there was no “collusion” — and, by the way, “collusion” is not a crime anyway.
    On the subject of “collusion,” it is true that it is not literally a federal crime. “Collusion” is generally defined as “a secret agreement or cooperation for an illegal or deceitful purpose.” The federal crime closest to the concept would be “conspiracy,” but that “conspiracy” would need to amount to something illegal — like, for instance, placing a wiretap without a court order, hacking into a computer network or (for another example) breaking into the Watergate office complex.
    Even if Trump campaign officials had happily accepted damaging information about Hillary Clinton from the Russians — and there is no evidence that they did — so far there has been nothing to prove that they engaged in illegal activity through their interest in obtaining the material. It might be morally and politically objectionable to gather dirt about your campaign opponent from an enemy of the United States, but the mere acceptance and use of the material would not be illegal.
    In fact, if you could stretch the conspiracy statute to apply to your right to political free speech under the First Amendment, it would likely also provide a shield from prosecution. It really wouldn’t matter that you got your info from the Russians.
    The idea that this is some kind of campaign finance law violation doesn’t fly either. The statute requires campaign solicitation of cash or a “thing of value” from a foreign national. Information about Hillary Clinton is not what the law had in mind. The exchange of information is a core First Amendment/free speech concept, and Americans are free to accept ideas and information from US citizens and foreign nationals alike, even if the information is damaging to a political opponent.
    If you charged Trump campaign officials with this as a crime, you would have to charge Clinton campaign officials if they accepted information or volunteer services from, say, undocumented aliens, as they are clearly foreign nationals. And don’t even say the word treason. Treason, which can be punishable by death, is a whole different animal reserved for people who do things like steal atomic secrets and betray their country.
    Meeting with allegedly supportive Russians does not a criminal case make, as Yoda might say. On the other hand, just ask frequent CNN contributor (and Nixon-era White House counsel) John Dean about the notion that “it’s not the crime but the cover-up” that you have to worry about.
    The President and his supporters get very hot and bothered about the so-called “Russia Investigation” and the Don Jr. email chain adds to the growing body of evidence that a lot of people connected to the Trump campaign have been lying about connections to and meetings with supportive Russians.
    If they lie to federal investigators, the Mueller grand jury or congressional committees about this, charges of perjury, lying to federal investigators and obstruction of justice will follow. Just ask John Dean. When the smoke clears and the Trump Jr. email coverage is over, remember the covering-up, because if there is criminality in the Trump administration, that is where it will be found.

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