Donald Trump Jr. has been in hot water since it came out that he met with a Russian attorney during the campaign. Trump conferred with the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, believing that she was connected to the Russian government and had dirt about Hillary Clinton.
Trump denies that anything damaging to Clinton was exchanged during their meeting. Veselnitskaya denies that she ever had damaging information in the first place. Instead, Veselnitskaya says their meeting was about Russia’s restrictions on the adoption of Russian children by Americans, and Trump Jr. says that subject constituted the majority of the meeting, much to his chagrin.
The meeting between Veselnitskaya and Trump has led some to suggest that they violated both the Logan Act and campaign finance laws. The former is a law that forbids American citizens from engaging in contacts or correspondence with intent to influence a foreign government in disputes against the United States government. The relevant campaign finance laws forbid candidates from receiving illegal campaign contributions, including from foreign donors.
The Logan Act has not been enforced for over 200 years. George Washington University constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley calls the antiquated law “facially unconstitutional.” For both of those reasons, it is a stretch to apply the Logan Act to this case.
The campaign finance laws are probably the most dangerous charge that Don Jr.’s critics can make. The current statutes forbid campaigns from accepting anything of value from foreigners. According to some experts, anything of value includes opposition research materials about a rival candidate in a political race.
Others disagree. UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh argues that including opposition research under current campaign finance laws would be a violation of the First Amendment. He writes in the Washington Post:
Yet that, it seems to me, can’t be right. It would raise obvious First Amendment problems: First, noncitizens, and likely even non-permanent-residents, in the United States have broad First Amendment rights. See Bridges v. Wixon, 326 U.S. 135 (1945) (“freedom of speech and of press is accorded aliens residing in this country”); Underwager v. Channel 9 Australia, 69 F.3d 361 (9th Cir. 1995) (“We conclude that the speech protections of the First Amendment at a minimum apply to all persons legally within our borders,” including ones who are not permanent residents).Advertisement
Second, Americans have the right to receive information even from speakers who are entirely abroad. See Lamont v. Postmaster General, 381 U.S. 301 (1965). Can Americans — whether political candidates or anyone else — really be barred from asking questions of foreigners, just because the answers might be especially important to voters?
Donald Trump Jr. should not have met with the Russians. It was a foolish and amateurish decision, one that has done little except humiliate his father. The meeting is indicative of a campaign that was willing to do anything to win, even if it was unethical or sleazy.
But based on what we know right now, it doesn’t appear to have been illegal.
If Donald Trump Jr. is prosecuted, it would likely run afoul of the U.S. Constitution and constitute a restriction on free speech. Ultimately, abiding by our founding charter is more important than Democrats exacting political revenge.