On Tuesday morning, Donald Trump Jr. posted an email chain from last June in which he agreed to a meeting with a “Russian government lawyer” named Natalia Veselnitskaya who supposedly had damaging information about Hillary Clinton. The emails confirm that not only did Trump Jr. agree to the meeting knowing the alleged information was tied to the Russian government, but he also included Jared Kushner and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort in the thread.
Does this constitute clear-cut evidence of collusion or conspiracy on the part of the Trump campaign? Did Trump Jr. commit a prosecutable crime? And will Kushner and Manafort now face legal problems of their own since they were included in the emails and attended the meeting?
I reached out to 17 legal experts and asked them these questions directly. Twelve said that the case for collusion and conspiracy is near conclusive, though it’s not entirely clear what the legal consequences will be. Five experts believe the circumstantial evidence is damning but we don’t yet know enough to draw any conclusions.
You can read their full responses below.
This is near-conclusive evidence of collusion and conspiracy
Jed Shugerman, law professor, Fordham University
I think there are now legitimate charges that can be brought based upon conspiracy laws and campaign finance laws, but it would be a mistake to characterize any of this as a slam dunk for a couple of reasons. One, this is all unprecedented. What we're doing is reading statutes on the book and trying to find a link, but the way the legal system works is that you also have to look at case law, and anyone who says the statutes are 100 percent clear and the precedents are clear is not recognizing how unprecedented these events are. That these events are so unprecedented speaks to the gravity of what's happened here. We've never seen anything like this in the history of the republic.
Now, if you're asking what would make the case against Trump Jr. a slam dunk, I think it's that all of this is part of the broader Russia cover-up. That there were all these meetings that campaign officials refused to disclose now appears perfectly intentional. We know what they were hiding, and it's awfully damning.
Bob Bauer, law professor, New York University
These email exchanges clarify in no uncertain terms the Trump campaign's understanding that the Russian government was looking to provide support, and the campaign's expressed willingness to seek and accept it. The potential violations presented by these facts are the unlawful solicitation and acceptance of items of value from a foreign national. Also clear from these exchanges is that the campaign as an organization has this legal exposure, not only the individuals, including Donald Trump Jr., who arranged and participated in it. All of these individuals were acting on behalf of the organization, as its agents.
Investigations are complex, and the inquiry certainly will not stop with the disclosure of these emails. They do indicate the seriousness of the issues that have been raised, now that we have more and more evidence that the president, when calling openly for Russian support in locating emails stolen from Secretary Clinton, was not — as he later claimed — joking.
Diane Marie Amann, law professor, University of Georgia
At the least, the just-posted email string establishes: first, that Donald Trump Jr. arranged with a longtime colleague to meet someone he understood to be a “Russian government attorney who is flying over from Moscow,” following the colleague’s claim that “the Crown Prosecutor of Russia” had offered to provide anti-Clinton documents as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump”; second, that Trump Jr. said “I love” the offer; and third, that Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort knew of the “Meeting” before it occurred.
The reference to “Meeting” is notably terse. The emails appear to have been cut and pasted, with some having forwarding arrows at the left margin, others not, so that it is not clear whether Trump Jr. forwarded the entire string to the other two. Nor do the emails tell what might have been said, or not said, in pre-meeting conversations among Trump Jr., Kushner, and Manafort.
In short, the posted emails in and of themselves do not constitute “slam dunk evidence” against all three men. But they surely loom large as links in a chain of adverse circumstantial evidence.
Paul Butler, law professor, Georgetown University
This is definitely compelling evidence of collusion, but collusion itself is not a crime. Potential crimes include conspiracy, if hacking emails was part of the plan. But the more likely charge would be soliciting a foreign national for a campaign contribution. The fact that Manafort and Kushner knew they were going to a meeting with a Russian and getting "support" for Trump's campaign gives them the same exposure that Trump Jr. has. The defense would be the typical Trump operative line — "we didn't know it was wrong" — but, especially for an experienced campaign old hand like Manafort, that defense is unpersuasive.
No public corruption case is ever a slam dunk, but this paper trail puts Trump Jr., Manafort, and Kushner in a precarious position.
Miriam Baer, law professor, Brooklyn Law School
Today’s newly released emails make it easier for a fact finder to infer that Manafort and Kushner joined an illicit conspiracy (e.g., agreeing to accept “anything of value” from a foreign national — and in this case, someone who appeared to be acting as an intermediary for a foreign adversary), although a good defense attorney could still find some wiggle room. Presumably these are not the last emails we will see, and as we see more evidence, we may find additional members of the Trump team who were aware of and encouraged this meeting.
A final point: given Mr. Manafort’s previous history advising political campaigns (not to mention the fact that he graduated from law school and was a highly successful lobbyist), it is inconceivable that he didn’t recognize the potentially fraught nature of Donald Trump Jr.’s contacts with Rob Goldstone [who arranged the meeting], as well as the meeting itself.
Jessica Levinson, law professor, Loyola Law School
To the extent that President Trump's then-campaign chair, Paul Manafort, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, knew about the Russian government's desire to provide them with valuable information about Hillary Clinton that would help the campaign, this raises the prospect of conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States or to defraud the United States.
I do not believe we know enough to say that this is a slam-dunk case.
We do know that federal law prohibits the solicitation of campaign contributions (including things of value) from a foreign individual or entity. Given the revelations this morning, there is a strong case to show that Donald Trump Jr. did solicit information, which would be valuable to the campaign. And if Manafort and Kushner were part of this plan, as it now seems, that raises the serious specter of conspiracy.
Victoria Nourse, law professor, Georgetown University
The emails are clear evidence of intent that the campaign was prepared to ask for support from a foreign government. Campaign finance rules are complex, but this rule is not: Any seasoned campaign professional would have called 1-800-FBI at the point someone suggested this. At the very least, the emails are sufficient evidence for a prosecutor to take the case to a grand jury to determine whether they violated campaign finance laws — you can't "solicit" from a foreign government for money or "anything of value."
Under the criminal law, solicit means asking, so if you ask someone to murder someone else, that is a crime even if no one is murdered. Similarly here, if you ask someone to violate the campaign finance laws, even if the do not come forth with anything, that is a crime.
Samuel Gross, law professor, University of Michigan
This is beginning to look a lot like a criminal conspiracy. Nobody's guilty in this country until a jury is convinced by proof beyond a reasonable doubt — but you can be indicted on less evidence than this.
Brandon Garrett, law professor, University of Virginia
The portion of the email chain noting that this was a “Russian government attorney” suggests knowledge that they intended to get something from a foreign source and that it was in the nature of “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary.”
The emails also provide evidence of intent to obtain something of value from a foreign individual or entity. And that thing of value does not just have to be a campaign donation to be illegal; it can be “anything of value.”
This is the type of smoking-gun evidence that prosecutors prize.
Joshua Dressler, law professor, Ohio State University
Today’s news means that Trump, Manafort, and Kushner sink or swim together. That is, the law treats them as if they were a single entity — if a crime has occurred, they are ALL guilty, equally. The question is what crime did they conspire to commit?
“Conspiracy” is a crime, but conspiracy to do something LAWFUL, of course, is not a crime. There must be an agreement by two or more persons to commit a criminal act, along with some overt act committed by one of them in furtherance of the agreement. Going to the meeting clearly qualifies as an overt act. So the question becomes, what is that criminal offense that they conspired to commit? That is where I am not sufficiently familiar of the federal code to know what might fairly be charged. But they are equally guilty, if guilty. (Of course, this proves “collusion” — a slam dunk — but “conspiracy” is a term of legal art.)
It is theoretically possible that Manafort and Kushner would claim that although they KNEW of the Trump Jr./Russian intermediary plan (by means of that email), that they were opposed to proceeding. But if that is so, one would expect that they would not have joined Trump Jr. at the meeting. If they can point to some emails they sent Trump Jr. saying, “That is wrong” or “a bad idea,” or, “Hey, it’s a crime, don’t do it,” that could exculpate them. But without such evidence, their presence at the meeting is certainly something a prosecutor would use to say that they not only knew what was happening but were also in agreement with Trump Jr. to proceed, and thus they become co-conspirators.
Jens David Ohlin, law professor, Cornell University
I think this changes the conversation completely. It’s now established that the campaign was aware of, and involved in, Russian attempts to meddle in the election. The only question now is whether President Trump was personally involved or not. But the question of the campaign’s involvement now appears answered (in the affirmative). For Donald Trump Jr., Manafort, and Kushner, the relevant legal category is conspiracy.
Lisa Kern Griffin, law professor, Duke University
It’s premature to state any conclusions about the legal consequences of the Veselnitskaya meeting, but with the release of an email chain on which both Manafort and Kushner were copied, its significance certainly grows. It strained credulity from the beginning to claim that a national campaign chairman would take a “blind” meeting with a foreign national like this. Now it’s clear that the offer of damaging information from a Russian government source was made in advance and forwarded to all participants.
When alleged crimes arise from conversations, there are always fine lines to be drawn. But it is intent that governs which side of the legal line such a meeting falls on, not success. This is obviously not a cast of characters out of some John le Carré novel, and the meeting may have been a bumbling effort. But it reveals important information about what the campaign was willing to do and with what intent. It is also just a single point in a complicated timeline of events involving many members of the campaign and the administration.
We don’t know enough to draw any conclusions
Sol Wisenberg, former deputy independent counsel for the Whitewater/Lewinsky investigation
Conspiracy to do what? What is the crime? It may well be a very important piece of evidence as to state of mind on the question of whether certain Trump folks aided and abetted or conspired with the Russians to hack DNC and HRC campaign computers. It is a federal crime to hack someone’s computers. Collusion/conspiracy must relate to some crime.
So is it a bombshell? Yes. Is it abnormal and improper? Yes. Is it a crime? What is the crime?
Steven Duke, law professor, Yale University
So the question is whether these men committed criminal violations when they agreed to meet a Russian lawyer who they thought might have derogatory information about Hillary Clinton. I don’t think so. Ambiguities in criminal statutes are supposed to be resolved against criminalization. That is especially so where the statute allegedly punishes the receipt of information. If receiving information that Hillary was being helped by the Russians is a crime, so too would be receiving information that the Russians were helping Trump in the election. Anyone receiving either kind of information would arguably be a criminal, e.g., FBI and CIA agents and journalists. And this could even be true today since the statute is not limited to “items of value” sought or received prior to the election; it just has to be “in connection with” an election.
No competent prosecutor would bring a case against these three men based upon the known facts.
Julie O’Sullivan, law professor, Georgetown University
“Collusion” is not a legal concept. Based on the very little we now know, they would be looking at potential conspiracy charges. But to be guilty of conspiracy, they need to agree to a criminal venture — such an agreement is the essence of conspiracy. They have to know about the venture and hope to make it succeed. Just being in the room and listening to what is said is likely insufficient. There would have to be some proof that they knew something shady was going on, and that they agreed to participate.
Richard Briffault, law professor, Columbia University
It is unlawful for a foreign national to contribute anything of value in a federal election, and for an American to solicit, accept, or receive a contribution from a foreign national or to knowingly provide substantial assistance to a foreign national making a contribution or engaging in an independent expenditure. It’s not clear that just being in a meeting is enough to constitute "substantial assistance," but if they signaled encouragement of the Russian effort, as by indicating gratitude for the effort, or in any way indicated that certain kinds of efforts would be more helpful than others, that could support a case for "substantial assistance."
Today’s news makes things tricky. Going to a meeting with people who are known to be supporters could be seen as reinforcing that support and encouraging additional support, and that could be treated as illegally soliciting or accepting a foreign contribution.
Keith Whittington, politics professor, Princeton University
The evidence of soliciting information for the campaign from a foreign source is clearly very strong. It would seem that we are not yet to the point of seeing evidence that members of the campaign actively colluded with the Russians to guide or encourage the hacking of the DNC or the creation and spread of false news stories on the internet, but it seems evident members of the campaign team were willing to receive negative information about Clinton from Russian sources. There might still be some open legal questions about whether the effort to receive "dirt" on Clinton from Russian nationals would qualify as "anything of value" for purposes of campaign finance laws.