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Collusion, conspiracy, and campaigns

Top Trump campaign aides met with a Russian lawyer before the election, and despite their assurances that nothing illegal occurred, Congress wants them all to testify.

Photo: HuffPost/ Brian Snyder, Reuters (Courtesy of Google Images)

The ability to have open, fair, and free elections is at the core of American democratic values.  Not only did America fight for these values for its own citizens but also for the citizens of other nations.  To further ensure these values for ourselves, Congress passed laws regarding how elections should run and what is expected of candidates. One well-known aspect of election laws is the fact that foreign influences are not allowed to participate during elections; instead, candidates are expected to seek support and funding from American citizens.

Since the November election, the Trump administration has been plagued with accusations of having ties with the Russian government in some form or another.  President Trump and other top members of the White House have repeatedly denied and rebuked such accusations, claiming them to be “fake news” and “a distraction.”  As the administration approaches its sixth month in office, these denials appear to be more hollow and shaky as more campaign revelations come to light.

One of the biggest revelations is the fact that Donald Trump Jr. received an email from Rob Goldstone, a promoter of Russian music, stating that a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, had some information concerning Hilary Clinton.  Goldstone felt that the information would be useful to Donald Trump Sr. in his campaign and showed Russia’s support for the Trump campaign.

Rather than rebuffing the offer of support, Trump Jr. replied, “I love it especially later in the summer.”

According to election laws, representatives of foreign countries can meet with American candidates and their campaign teams.  They often do so in order to figure out the candidate’s stance on certain issues and to discuss their own stance on those issues.  These meetings between representatives of foreign countries and candidates can be justified as attempts to prepare for that candidate’s possible presidency.  It is a completely different matter, however, to offer not only their support of the candidate’s campaign, but also offer their help to overcome the candidate’s opponent.

Rather than rebuffing the offer of support, Trump Jr. replied, “I love it especially later in the summer.”  Goldstone and Trump Jr. continued to discuss times to set up the meeting, and eventually included Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort in the emails concerning the meeting.  Veselnitskaya met with Trump Jr., Kushner, and Manafort in New York City while Veselnitskaya was representing a Russian company in the Federal District Court of the Southern District of New York.  At the meeting, it was revealed that Veselnitskaya did not in fact have information about Clinton as Goldstone had promised.  Instead, the meeting allegedly focused on adoption policy between the U.S. and Russia.  Veselnitskaya told the New York Times that she was not acting on behalf of the Russian government when she met with the Trump campaign aides.  The entire sequence of events took place before the election.

President Trump praised his son’s leaking of the email chain saying, “My son is a high-quality person, and I applaud his transparency.”

In the months following, the American public has seen more and more evidence of Trump administration officials tied to Russia.  Most notably, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation because of his prior meeting with former Russian ambassador Sergi Kislyak, which President Trump later said would not have made him a candidate for Attorney General.  Calls for resignation and impeachment intensified, declaring the administration’s actions amounted to collusion with Russia.  Feeling the pressure from the public, the press, and Congress, Trump Jr. tweeted the entire email chain in order to be “totally transparent.”  President Trump praised his son’s leaking of the email chain saying, “My son is a high-quality person, and I applaud his transparency.” Kushner made a statement on the White House lawn saying, “I did not collude, nor know of anyone else in the campaign who colluded, with any foreign government.”

Technically, Kushner’s statement made on the White House lawn is correct.  Collusion occurs when two or more parties, sometimes with contrasting interests, form an agreement to defraud another party.  The word collusion, in a legal context, also has a financial connotation.  Its main use is in bankruptcy, divorce, or other cases concerning money.  Trump Jr.’s interaction with Russian lawyer Veselnitskaya was first concerned with political information, and later adoption.  The political information may have been of value, but it would have been of political value, not monetary value.  The consequences of collusion usually do not have a jail sentence, but rather, a fine may be assessed against the violating parties.  Despite headlines questioning the meeting and its legal impact, the Trump campaign’s actions likely do not constitute collusion.

While the meeting may not constitute collusion, it may constitute conspiracy.  Conspiracy is defined as “an agreement between two or more parties to commit, through their joint efforts, a crime or an innocent act that becomes unlawful due to the concerted efforts of the parties.”  In his statement he released with the email chain, Trump Jr. explained that he met with the Russian lawyer for the purpose of conducting “political opposition research.”  This kind of research, which has been used and is expected in almost all elections, is the innocent act of trying to learn more about one’s opponent.  What is different about Trump Jr.’s meeting and what makes it potentially illegal, is the fact that the information did not come from U.S. citizens or from diligent research conducted within the Trump campaign, but rather from a foreign power that is often at odds with the U.S.

Three political activist groups, Common Cause, the Campaign Legal Center, and Democracy 21, filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and the Department of Justice (DOJ), alleging that because of the circumstances of the political opposition research, the Trump campaign violated the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA). The groups argue that by taking the meeting with the Russian lawyer, Trump Jr. was soliciting a “gift in kind” from a foreign power, thus violating the FECA.  The FECA prohibits foreign nationals from directly or indirectly making “a contribution or donation of money or other thing of value, or to make an express or implied promise to make a contribution or donation.”  The FEC can impose fines for violating election law, but may refer the case to the DOJ for criminal proceedings.

[T]he Trump administration will struggle to lay to rest the controversy of Russia and whether or not the country was involved in the campaign and the election.

At the moment, no charges have been made against the Trump campaign trio.   Congress has requested that all three men appear and give testimony concerning the meeting with Veselnitskaya and other issues involving interactions between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.  Kushner has already met with committee members and staff to answer questions.  Representative Mike Conaway (R-TX) stated, “I found [Kushner] to be straightforward and forthcoming.  He wanted to answer every question we had.”  Likewise, Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA) said, “We appreciate his voluntary willingness to come and testify today.”  Former Trump campaign manager Manafort, on the other hand, has not voluntarily submitted himself to questioning by Congress.  Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) of the Senate Judiciary Committee issued a subpoena for Manafort to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee.  Manafort has since agreed to voluntarily testify, and the subpoena was rescinded.

It is likely that Trump Jr., Kushner, and Manafort’s actions will come to haunt the Trump administration.  Rather than having the media or the public focus on what they are accomplishing, the Trump administration will struggle to lay to rest the controversy of Russia and whether or not the country was involved in the campaign and the election.  It is unlikely that any of the three men will face criminal charges in the coming future unless other evidence is unearthed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.  Whether the Russia investigation is a “witch hunt” or one of the greatest political scandals of our time, the outcome will surely be one for the history books.

Claire Scott
About Claire Scott (15 Articles)
Claire Scott is a third year law student and serves as a Senior Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. Originally from Chesapeake, VA, Claire is a Campbell University alumi. After her 1L summer, she worked in the Harnett County NC District Attorney's Office as well as the District 11A Veteran Treatment Court. Her legal interests include estate planning and veteran law.