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Bush’s former ethics chief called Trump Jr.’s meeting close to “treason.” I asked him why.

Richard Painter served as White House ethics lawyer under George W. Bush. He calls the New York Times revelations “very, very disturbing.”

Donald Trump Is Sworn In As 45th President Of The United States Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

The week is dark and full of terrors.

On Tuesday, Donald Trump Jr. released a batch of emails confirming that, in June 2016, he, former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner met with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer with apparent ties to the Kremlin, who Trump Jr. believed had information that would be damaging to Hillary Clinton.

Though many legal experts believe this constitutes evidence of “collusion” between the Trump campaign and Russia, Trump Jr. is arguing that it was merely an attempt to collect so-called “opposition research” on Clinton, a normal activity that all political campaigns do.

"For me this was opposition research," Trump Jr. told Fox News’s Sean Hannity Tuesday night. "They had something, you know, maybe concrete evidence to all the stories I’d been hearing about … so I think I wanted to hear it out. But really it went nowhere and it was apparent that wasn’t what the meeting was about."

“It was such a nothing,” he added.

Former White House ethics lawyer Richard Painter, who served in the George W. Bush administration, begs to differ. In the past several days as the story began to trickle out, Painter has been publicly criticizing Trump Jr.’s behavior, even going so far as to say that this “borders on treason.”

I called up Painter on Tuesday night to delve deeper into why he thinks that, and if the email disclosures had changed his opinions or strengthened them. Opposition research on candidates, Painter explained to me, should never extend to working with foreign powers. “Everybody gets opposition research,” says Painter, “just like everybody gets campaign contributions. But we don't get either one from foreign nationals.”

What follows is a partial transcript of our conversation, lightly edited and condensed.

Sarah Wildman

Before we'd even seen the evidence of the emails themselves, you publicly pointed to Donald Trump Jr.’s behavior and said this “borders on treason.” Has your position shifted, or been confirmed, now that we've seen Donald Trump Jr.'s emails?

Richard Painter

Well, [we have an] understanding of the meaning of the word "treason" as betraying your own country. In the United States, our laws deal with treason in different ways depending on the circumstances. If there's a declared war, we have a separate treason statute, which allows for prosecutions of persons who give comfort to the enemy. But that statute is very rarely used outside the context of declared war.

During the Cold War, and many our most recent wars, we would deal with acts that would constitute treason, or near treason, through other statutes, such as the espionage statute, statutes prohibiting computer crimes, including computer hacking, which is what clearly happened here with the Russians, and also receipt of documents stolen from computers or otherwise, [as well as] conspiracy statutes, and statutes prohibiting false statements to the government. And then also our campaign laws, which prohibit foreign governments from giving financial or other assistance to American political campaigns.

We don't have a declared war with Russia. We certainly don't want one. We don’t know for sure statutes were broken. But the facts as reported in the New York Times are very, very disturbing.

Sarah Wildman

What is the law you think might have been broken?

Richard Painter

Well, the laws that come to mind, first, include the campaign finance laws. [It’s forbidden to] receive assistance from a foreign national for your political campaign — [this may] run afoul of the campaign laws, which limit such assistance to Americans. Foreign nationals are not supposed to be funding or providing other services for United States political campaigns.

Second, we know that the Russians engaged in criminal activity, in computer hacking. And anyone who participated in that, or who took possession of the stolen emails, or who colluded with the Russians to figure out what to do with the stolen emails, would be an accessory, at least after the fact, with respect to the computer hacking. And that's a serious offense, just like taking possession of stolen merchandise.

And then, third, we have a significant number of inconsistencies in the statements that have been made by Donald Trump Jr., and a number of other people, about their contacts with the Russians. And anyone who has made false statements to the United States government about their contacts with the Russians would be guilty of making false statements, under the false statement statute, 18, United States Code 1001.

So I think there's going to be a need to go through any and all statements made to the government, whether it is in connection with Jared Kushner's security clearance, or any other communications. I have no doubt that Donald Trump Jr. and Manafort and Kushner, all of them, have probably talked to the FBI, and other government officials previously, about their contacts with the Russians. And I very much hope that they told the truth. Because they were required to tell the truth.

Sarah Wildman

Is there any information that would make you think it would have been in any way defensible to take this meeting?

Richard Painter

Not that I know of. There's only one defensible response to the suggestion that was made in that email, describing the information that would be provided by the Russian government. And that is that they should have gone to the FBI. This is information likely to have been obtained through spying on the United States. The FBI needs to investigate. The Russians have been spying on the United States for years. They [have thought] they can destabilize Western democracies for years.

Sarah Wildman

Why is getting opposition research from a foreign government different, say, from getting it from another interest group?

Richard Painter

Everybody gets opposition research, just like everybody gets campaign contributions. But we don't get either one from foreign nationals. That's prohibited under the campaign laws, getting assistance from foreign nationals of money and other services, including opposition research.

Second, the information the Russians have is likely to have been obtained through computer hacking or espionage or other illegal activities that we may not expect. So, if somebody doesn't want to get indicted, he's not going to touch it. So once again, the only appropriate answer is to call the FBI.

Sarah Wildman

How do campaigns, particularly ones like the Trump campaign, which was filled with amateurs and a newbie running for office, how are they supposed to know that you can't work with foreign governments? Is there a rule written somewhere that they should have seen?

Richard Painter

Well, they're not newbies. Manafort has been in campaigns for quite a while. And furthermore, and this is obvious, it's the Russians, after all. We all know how the Russians get information about Americans. This is not the first time people talked about the Russians in computer hacking. They should not have touched this. That should have been inherently obvious to anyone.

Sarah Wildman

They should have been conscious of the campaign finance rules as well then?

Richard Painter

Well, absolutely. You don't deal with foreigners to begin with, in a campaign, because of the campaign finance rules [and] campaign regulations. And then second, when you're dealing with the Russians, you're likely to be dealing with stolen information. There's a very, very high risk of that. And everybody knows that. So you got both of those problems.

Sarah Wildman

So are you actually saying that the research itself is prohibited?

Richard Painter

You can't bypass the campaign finance rules by providing services here.

They're providing services for the Trump campaign, or to get Trump elected. And that's exactly what those emails say, that the Russian government wants to help Trump get elected. And the only answer to that is, "Thank you, but no thanks."

Sarah Wildman

What laid the groundwork for these campaign finance laws that focus on foreign intervention?

Richard Painter

Well, I think that it's been for quite a while, we've had a prohibition on foreign governments' money being put into American campaigns. I mean, it goes back to the 1960s. And Russia, during the Cold War period, is certainly one of the countries we've had an eye on, and been worried about.

Sarah Wildman

So what are the remedies? What should happen here? I mean, best-case scenario, what happens next?

Richard Painter

Well, there needs to be a thorough investigation by both houses of Congress to find out what happened. And that's independent of [Special Counsel Robert] Mueller's investigation, which is going to continue. We'll get the facts and then take the appropriate steps from there.

But I think the White House needs to release any and all information that the president has, or anyone working for him has, about any contact anyone had with the Russians. They're going to be much better off if they put all the cards face up on the table now, so we can deal with it, rather than having this leak out, bit by bit, drip, drip, drip.

Sarah Wildman

If they do release it all, then what?

Richard Painter

Well, it depends on what we find out. We've got to get more facts here. But there is significant evidence here that crimes were committed. But I think I want to leave it at that. And we need to find out the facts, and find out who did, who knew about this. When did the president know about this?

We're told the president didn't know about this meeting. And yet, right about the time this meeting was set up, the president is giving speeches, saying, "I'm going to go give another speech in which I'm going to release all this data, information about Hillary Clinton." And then that second speech never happened. Because, remember, at this meeting, they never got anything. So, I mean, there's something strange going on here, and this is what needs to be looked into.

Sarah Wildman

You mentioned Jared Kushner earlier. Is this something he could, or should, lose his security clearance over?

Richard Painter

I don't know why he has a clearance at this point. There's enough information here that if he weren't the president's son-in-law, his security clearance would be gone by now.

[To get clearance] you’re [asked] sensitive questions about things like contact with foreign nationals. And if you don't answer those questions truthfully, that's a crime. So that's the first step. We’ve got to figure out whether he answered those questions truthfully when he was granted the security clearance to begin with.

Sarah Wildman

Is it possible that Trump could actually pardon people for crimes, if there are crimes committed in this case? And could he do so preemptively, before they're even charged?

Richard Painter

Oh, yes, yes, yes. He definitely could. Ex-President Nixon was pardoned by President Ford before he was ever charged with any criminal violation.

Sarah Wildman

So Trump could pardon them at any point in the process.

Richard Painter

Yes, he could. The only debatable issue is whether he can pardon for future crimes. That's a different situation.

Sarah Wildman

What does that mean, exactly, "future crimes"?

Richard Painter

It's debatable whether the president could give you a pardon that entitles you to then, after the date of the pardon, commit additional crimes that are covered by that pardon. I don't think that works. In other words, the president can pardon you for all crimes you have committed, up through the date of the pardon, whether or not you have been charged with a crime.

Sarah Wildman

Collusion itself is not a crime, though, is it? Potential crimes include the conspiracy of hacking emails as part of that plan. But the most likely charge would be soliciting a foreign national for a campaign contribution. Is that where you see this coming down?

Richard Painter

The legal term for "collusion" is conspiracy. The underlying crime could involve violation of campaign finance regulations, but also could involve the use and dissemination of stolen emails, that were obtained, or other documents, obtained through computer hacking and other crimes. So that is what would have to be discerned in the course of the investigation of what happened.

But collusion or conspiracy with the people who are committing other crimes is itself a crime. But you do need to show the underlying crime, whether it's computer hacking, or violation of other law.

If you conspire to commit a crime, even though the conspiracy's unsuccessful, the conspiracy itself was a crime.

I want to emphasize that you, of course, do have to have an underlying crime, or attempt to commit a crime, in order to have a conspiracy. But people have been convicted of conspiracy when there is no actual crime committed, because the crime is broken up. Or, for some other reason, they don't commit the crime.

Sarah Wildman

How unprecedented is this? This town is filled with divisions, partisan divisions, but this seems to go well beyond the idea of partisan divisions and get into different territory altogether. Does this feel different to you?

Richard Painter:

Well, it certainly is unprecedented.

I'm old enough to remember Nixon. I was 12 years old at the time. And at least with Nixon, he did not use the KGB or the Russians to assist with the Watergate break-in, or anything else. So we have all the problems that we had in the Nixon years, plus the national security concerns that come out of the involvement of Russia.

I believe this is a very serious national concern — a foreign government infiltrating an election in the United States to influence the outcome of the election in the United States, and perhaps actually influencing the outcome of the election.


Watch: What we know about Donald Trump Jr.'s connection to Russia