Donald Trump Jr.’s explanation this week about why he and other top Trump advisors met in June 2016 with a Russian lawyer who promised “information helpful” to his father’s US presidential campaign raises more questions than it answers.
While Trump Jr. said on Sunday (July 9) that the meeting at Trump Tower yielded nothing “meaningful,” the very fact that he, his brother in law Jared Kushner, and then-campaign manager Paul Manafort met with the lawyer is significant, in part because his father’s administration has repeatedly denied any such meetings with Russian nationals related to the campaign.
Trump Jr.’s admission came in response to a July 7 New York Times article about the meeting (paywall). Trump Jr. was told by email before the meeting that the “information” was part of a Russian government attempt to aid Donald Trump’s presidential bid, the Times reported July 10 (paywall). Trump Jr. has hired New York criminal defense lawyer Alan Futerfas to represent him in any Russia-related probes. Futerfas says his client has done nothing wrong.
Here are questions the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, along with congressional committees probing Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, are likely to try to get to the bottom of:
Is the lawyer connected to the Russian government?
Natalia Veselnitskaya is a managing partner in Kamerton Consulting, a Moscow law firm. She has represented Denis Katsyv, a Russian national accused of laundering millions in tax-fraud proceeds into US real estate last year in a case brought in the southern district of New York. Katsyv’s case was settled in May for $6 million. The tax fraud was originally uncovered by a Russian accountant for Hermitage Capital, Sergei Magnitsky, who was arrested and died in a Russian jail after his arrest. In sanctions passed after his death, the US froze assets of Russian investigators and prosecutors involved in the accountant’s detention.
Veselnitskaya has been lobbying for the Magnitsky sanctions to be lifted. She represents state-owned companies in court, and is married to a former deputy government minister. While the Kremlin said it doesn’t know who she is, critics of the Russian government say that is unlikely. “I’d be surprised that anyone who had done their due diligence would have agreed to meet with her, considering her sketchy CV,” William Browder, founder of Hermitage, which had invested heavily in Russia before being targeted by the government, told the Financial Times (paywall).
What information did Natalia Veselnitskaya give the Trump campaign?
Trump Jr. said he was asked by a person he knew from the 2013 Miss Universe pageant, held in a Moscow suburb, to meet with someone who might have information that would be “helpful” to the Trump campaign. He did not name the acquaintance. When they met, Veselnitskaya told Trump Jr. that “she had information that individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting Mrs. [Hillary] Clinton. Her statements were vague, ambiguous and made no sense. No details or supporting information was provided or even offered.”
Veselnitskaya told NBC News that she had no connection to the Kremlin. “I never had any damaging or sensitive information about Hillary Clinton. It was never my intention to have that,” she said. When asked why Trump Jr. got impression that she had damaging information, she told NBC: “It is quite possible that maybe they were longing for such an information. They wanted it so badly that they could only hear the thought that they wanted.”
Several weeks after the meeting, on July 22, Wikileaks began releasing hacked emails from the DNC that showed the party leadership supported Clinton’s campaign over her rival Bernie Sanders. Russian military intelligence was behind the hacks, and gave the information to Wikileaks, US intelligence says (pdf, page 8), as part of a plan to tip the US election to Trump.
Could the meeting have broken any US laws?
Legal experts told Quartz they see a wide scope for criminal investigation. Here are laws they cited, in interviews and in public statements, that could warrant examination:
Campaign-finance law prohibiting foreign contributions. Trump Jr.’s explanation of why he took the meeting is admission in and of itself of a campaign-finance law violation, asserts Brendan Fischer , program director of Federal Election Commission reform at the Campaign Legal Center, which advocates for fair elections. Foreign nationals are prohibited from contributing to US elections, and US citizens from soliciting such contributions. “Oppo[sition] research on your opponent is an in-kind contribution,” Fischer tweeted. “Arranging a meeting to facilitate the receipt of that contribution=solicitation.”
Receiving stolen property. Possessing or concealing stolen property can be a state and federal crime, and if Veselnitskaya passed along any hacked DNC emails or information contained in these emails, these laws could apply.
Computer-fraud law. The US’s “fraud and related activity” computer law is written mainly to outlaw hacking, but also makes it illegal to “willfully communicate, deliver, transmit, or cause to be communicated” any information obtained through hacking that “could be used to the injury of the United States, or to the advantage of any foreign nation.”
Conspiracy to defraud the US. The broadly defined federal law is generally defined as cheating the US government out of property or money, but has also been defined in legal judgments as interfering with or obstructing “lawful governmental functions by deceit, craft or trickery, or at least by means that are dishonest.” Laurence Tribe, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School, told Quartz that “a properly conducted presidential election” could be construed as what was taken by illegal means.
Accessory after the fact. Starting in August 2016, after he won the Republican presidential nomination, the elder Trump began receiving US intelligence briefings. This law could apply if these briefings included the information that intelligence agencies thought the Russian government was trying to hack the US election and if the information was then shared improperly, said Seth Abramson, professor of law at the University of New Hampshire. Accessory-after-the-fact statutes cover anyone who “knowing that an offense against the United States has been committed, receives, relieves, comforts or assists the offender in order to hinder or prevent his apprehension, trial or punishment.” US intelligence agencies started expressing concern about foreign hacking of the 2016 race in May.
Misprision of a felony. Anyone offered information obtained through a felony who does not bring that information to the US government’s attention could face charges. “Whoever, having knowledge of the actual commission of a felony cognizable by a court of the United States, conceals and does not as soon as possible make known the same to some judge or other person in civil or military authority under the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both,” the law says.
Why did Donald Trump Jr. attend the meeting?
Trump Jr’s explanation shocked US political pundits, in part, because of its apparent naiveté. He said he didn’t know who he was meeting before he went, and his Sunday statement refuted an earlier one to the Times, in which he said the meeting was just about adoptions of Russian children by Americans. It also refuted his own statements (pdf), his father’s, and vice president Mike Pence’s about meetings with Russians on campaign issues.
“You don’t find yourself in Don Jr.’s situation unless there is a lack of sophistication” about how the legal process works, said Abramson. President Trump also has “a history of seeming to believe he can talk himself out of any circumstance,” he added, drawing similarities between father and son.
What happens next?
Trump Jr. and the other attendees of the meeting are expected to be grilled by both FBI and congressional investigators. Adam Schiff, a Democrat with the House Intelligence Committee, and Susan Collins, a Republican from the Senate Intelligence Committee, said their panels intend to question everyone who attended the meeting.
The FBI does not comment on ongoing investigations. But the agency is expected to put special pressure on Rob Goldstone, a friend of the Trump family who told the Washington Post he set up the meeting, said Abramson. Investigators will be looking to learn why Goldstone, a music publicist, arranged the meeting, what exactly was said during it, and whether Trump Jr. contacted Goldstone in recent days.