Matthew T. Mangino
July 14, 2017
Since the very first suggestion that the Trump campaign conspired with the Russian government to influence the 2016 election, USA Today wrote that everyone associated with President Donald Trump — his family, his strategists, his vice president, his official spokesmen and himself — indignantly have insisted there was nothing at all to the “outrageous” suggestions that the campaign had anything to do with the Russians.
This week that all came crashing down. The disclosure of emails to and from Donald Trump Jr. indicated that some of the campaign’s closest advisers met with a representative of the Russian government to discuss the Russians providing information damaging to Hillary Clinton.
The meeting involved Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, and Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager. When informed by email of the planned meeting, and its focus on Clinton, Trump Jr. replied “I love it.”
There is nothing new about digging for dirt on a political opponent. Every campaign does opposition research. Firms are hired to thoroughly investigate a political opponent. Research can take the form of anything from arrest records, news-clippings, televised speeches and even old college essays. According to the Associated Press, a “vast majority” of opposition research involves publicly available records, compiled by professionals into easily digestible memos.
In the midst of the recent firestorm, Trump Jr. tweeted, “Obviously I’m the first person on a campaign to ever take a meeting to hear info about an opponent ... went nowhere but had to listen.”
Sarcasm aside, he may well be the first American campaign official to meet with a foreign power interested in influencing a national election.
In 2000, a close adviser to Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore received an anonymous package in the mail containing a videotape of George W. Bush practicing for the upcoming presidential debates and more than 120 pages of planned debate strategies.
According to Lawfare.com, the campaign adviser and his lawyer contacted the FBI and immediately handed the package over. The Gore campaign quickly reached out to the media to provide a timeline of the events.
The Gore campaign had no way of knowing if the anonymous package was from a foreign or domestic source, but the mere fact that it had the potential to impact the outcome of the election it was turned over to authorities.
Does the dubious Russian dirt on Clinton violate federal election law? Opposition research has a value to a campaign. Political campaigns routinely pay for such information and disclose those expenditures on campaign finance reports.
It is a federal crime for any foreigner to contribute or donate money, or some “other thing of value” in connection with an American election. A “thing of value” can be something intangible — like information. It is also a crime to solicit a foreigner to contribute to a campaign.
Robert Bauer, an election-law specialist who served as White House counsel in the Obama administration told the New York Times that the law may cover the Russian government’s paying its spies and hackers to collect and disseminate negative information about Clinton to help Trump win the 2016 election.
“There are firms in the United States that do negative research and sell it to campaigns,” Bauer said. “There is no way to take information someone has compiled using resources and say it’s just information and dirt. It’s valuable information and counts as a contribution when given to or distributed for the benefit of a campaign.”
In a complaint filed this week, the watchdog group Common Cause has asked the Federal Election Commission and the Department of Justice to investigate whether campaign finance laws were broken.
There is still a lot to learn. The Mueller investigation continues as do congressional investigations in both houses of Congress. Trump Jr.’s emails have only added fuel to an already raging fire.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
To visit the column CLICK HERE