What The Law Says About Donald Trump Jr.'s Meeting With A Russian Lawyer

Jul 16, 2017
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Who else was at the meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer promising damaging details on Hillary Clinton's campaign? The latest revelation is that a Russian-American lobbyist and a former Red Army officer was among those present. If you're keeping count, the number of attendees is now up to eight. But the central question remains. Was taking the meeting a crime? Certainly, some people seem to think so.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PBS NEWSHOUR")

ROBERT BAUER: This is highly suggestive of a potential violation of the law.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAKE TAPPER: This is evidence of willingness to commit collusion.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD PAINTER: Come very close, if not crossing the line, with respect to treason.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Those are snippets from TV interviews this week on PBS and cable news. And to unpack all this, we're joined by George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley. Thanks for being here this morning.

JONATHAN TURLEY: Thanks, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Just to be clear, Jonathan, you were not at the meeting with Donald Trump Jr. because the list keeps on expanding - just to be clear (laughter).

TURLEY: Yes. I actually feel quite insulted. Everyone else was.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Invited, and you weren't. All right. As we heard there, there have been a lot of accusations thrown around. Is there one that has merit?

TURLEY: Well, this is a very difficult case because people - we're living sort of the age of rage. People are enraged by this meeting, and there's legitimate reason for that. But the meeting itself does not constitute any clear prima facie case of a crime. There is no per se crime of collusion. Now, there's no question that...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's not a legal term, collusion.

TURLEY: No. And so if you're using collusion to mean conspiracy, then there are crimes that deal with conspiracy. But it's conspiracy to commit what? - is the tough question. Now, what's clear is that, in terms of collusion, Donald Trump Jr. appears to have been willing to collude. He just wasn't successful. It's like going to a no-tell motel with intent of being an adulterer and not finding someone there. It doesn't make you necessarily a better person. You're just a really bad adulterer.

And in this case, there was a clear message in the email that said, the Russian government wants to give you information to help in the election. It is breathtaking that anyone would take that meeting and not call the FBI, not send surrogates. Now, there is a question, however, of whether this was a bait and switch. You know, it doesn't really look like a Russian intelligence operation - sort of curious to all the high-level meetings.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Bait and switch - you mean that somehow they were trying to lure him in, and then we're going to give him something else.

TURLEY: Yeah. The lawyer involved has one principal cause and one principal client, to try to get rid of this Russian ban on adoption. It was part of sanctions.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right.

TURLEY: And so the argument, actually, that's now being embraced by the White House is that, essentially, they were, like, click-bait chumps. You know, they - someone knew how to get a meeting. They went there to get this information, and it turned out to be something different.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK. But there is an aspect of this meeting that has been called problematic and that, you know, relates to campaign finance law. Don Jr. could have run afoul of a law that says campaigns cannot get contributions of value from foreign governments. Can that law be applied to this case? Just briefly.

TURLEY: It could. But the problem - people have to be very careful. That could drive a stake through the heart of the First Amendment. If you start to treat the exchange of information as if it's like campaign finance money, it could go - it would be basically without any limiting principle. You could have a foreign NGO, an environmental group, giving information to a campaign, a foreign professor.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right.

TURLEY: It would really expand the federal election laws to go deeply into political speech. And people have to be very careful. They're so eager to find a crime here that they're not considering the implications.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. The Trump side is saying this is business as usual in D.C. People in this town are always meeting with foreign dignitaries and officials. So where is the line between a lobbyist and a, quote, "foreign agent?" What's the line between getting a tip from someone who happens to be a foreigner and breaking the law?

TURLEY: First of all, there's nothing usual about this. I've been in this town a long time. So have you. There's a lot of opposition research that goes on. But I think few people in this town would've taken this meeting. It's a seriously problematic meeting from the outset. Now, having said that, the line between a lobbyist and a foreign agent - certainly, foreign agent is there to represent directly a national interest of a foreign government. It does seem to me that there are violations of a law called FARA, which is the Foreign Agent Registration Act. Now, FARA is rarely prosecuted. And that's going to be part of the problem here. It's viewed as a fairly minor criminal violation. And, you know, what it gets you is fairly limited. It's usually handled administratively.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. Just briefly - yes or no. Do you think a crime was committed from what we know now?

TURLEY: I don't. And this talk about treason is perfectly bizarre.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jonathan Turley is a professor of public interest law at George Washington University. Thanks for talking with us today.

TURLEY: Thank you, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tags: