There ought to be a law! That’s what some people say when they see another young urban dude with those baggy jeans falling down and his butt hanging out – or two gay men kissing in public – or when they hear someone on cable news rip into Donald Trump again. Some say that, but there’s no law against any of that stuff.
Others shrug – it’s a free country. Actual laws, passed by consensus, at the local or state or federal level, cover those things that cause actual harm. Those things that simply piss people off are protected by the Constitution – specifically by the Bill of Rights – pretty much a list of those things about which the government “shall pass no law” at all, ever. Laws that “abridge the freedom of the press” are stuck down – the Establishment Clause forbids laws about a right and proper religion, and no other – and the government can’t do any “search and seizure” without a warrant – and so on. Americans just have to live with those things that simply piss them off. That’s the deal. That’s what we agreed to long ago.
That’s the price of freedom, but there are lots of laws, and one ought to know what most of them are. Some are surprising, as Matthew Yglesias notes here:
The fact that the Trump campaign took a high-level meeting – Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner were also present – whose ostensible purpose was for the Trump campaign to work with the Russian government to take down Clinton certainly increases the level of plausibility around the possibility that people from Trumpworld were involved in the anti-Clinton information operation that we do know took place.
Even before this latest revelation, Donald Trump, Jr.’s participation in the meeting was a potential source of legal trouble for him.
That’s because it’s essentially illegal to seek foreign help of any kind in a political campaign. Under 52 USC 30121, 36 USC 510, the law governing foreign contributions to political campaigns, you don’t have to actually get useful help from foreigners, according to this law: The mere fact that Trump Jr. asked for information from a Russian national about Clinton, and heard her out as she attempted to describe it, might have constituted a federal crime.
“If what Donald Trump Jr. said was true, then they should have never had the meeting in the first place,” Nick Akerman, an assistant special prosecutor during the Watergate investigation who now specializes in data crime, says.
Who knew? They should have known, and Randall Eliason, who teaches white-collar criminal law at George Washington University Law School, sees trouble coming:
The news about Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer is a significant development in the investigation of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian nationals.
Of course, a single meeting, by itself, is not a crime. Much more remains to be learned, including what was actually said during this and other meetings and whether any agreements were made. But prosecutors in the office of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III are no doubt extremely interested in what happened that day in June 2016 at Trump Tower.
This is another crime:
Collusion is usually defined as a secret agreement to do something improper. In the criminal-law world, we call that conspiracy. If unlawful collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian nationals did take place, criminal conspiracy would be one of the most likely charges.
A conspiracy is a partnership in crime. The federal conspiracy statute prohibits conspiracies to defraud the United States, which includes conspiracies to impede the lawful functions of the federal government – such as administering a presidential election.
Conspiracy also prohibits agreements to commit another federal crime. This would include an agreement to violate the laws against hacking into someone else’s computer, or to violate federal election laws.
Criminal conspiracy would be the charge, but proof of a criminal conspiracy is another matter:
Conspiracies, by their nature, take place in secret. To break through that secrecy, prosecutors often rely on circumstantial evidence. The classic trial lawyer’s metaphor is that each such piece of evidence is a brick. No single event standing alone may prove the case. But when assembled together, those individual bricks may build a wall – a big, beautiful wall – that excludes any reasonable doubt about what happened.
That’s why this latest news is a big deal. The meeting helps establish a few critical facts. The first is simply that contacts between Russians and campaign officials did take place. If you are seeking to prove a criminal partnership, evidence that the alleged partners had private meetings establishes the opportunity to reach an agreement.
Of course, there already was evidence of other meetings between Russian officials and members of the Trump campaign. The crucial new detail about this meeting is that campaign members now admit it took place after they were told that Veselnitskaya was offering compromising information about Clinton.
This fact is significant regardless of what happened at the meeting. Proving a defendant’s state of mind is key in any criminal case. This meeting provides critical evidence about the state of mind of Trump representatives: They were willing to hear what a Russian individual had to offer about their opponent.
There may be no getting around that:
The first line of defense against a conspiracy allegation typically would be: “That’s ridiculous – I’d never agree to meet with someone from Russia under those circumstances.” That line of defense appears to be gone. Members of the Trump campaign didn’t call the FBI to report a Russian national’s offer to dish dirt about the former U.S. secretary of state – they took the meeting.
Now add this:
A prosecutor investigating a potential conspiracy also would be intrigued by the way information about meetings between Russians and the Trump campaign has been trickling out. Over the past few months, several members of the Trump team have admitted to meetings and conversations with Russian officials after initially denying that any such contacts took place. In just the past few days, Trump Jr. and administration officials have offered differing accounts of the meeting with Veselnitskaya.
Lies or conflicting explanations can be important circumstantial evidence of criminal intent. They may indicate that the truth is something more nefarious that someone does not want to be discovered.
These folks seem to be in trouble. There ought to be a law? There is. Criminal conspiracy:
We know now that Trump campaign officials were, at the very least, willing to entertain the idea of accepting help from Russian nationals in a U.S. presidential election. That’s far from proof of a criminal conspiracy. But for prosecutors trying to build that wall of circumstantial evidence, it provides a pretty solid foundation.
That might explain this:
Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, has hired New York lawyer Alan Futerfas to represent him in connection with Russia-related investigations, the lawyer and Trump Jr.’s office said on Monday.
Futerfas, a sole practitioner who specializes in criminal defense, would not say when he was retained or whether he had any input into the statements Trump Jr. made over the weekend about a meeting with a Russian lawyer.
Had he been retained earlier, Futerfas would have advised Trump’s kid to shut the hell up and say nothing, but it’s too late for that. Now he has to make the best of things, but he’s good at that:
Cursory research reveals Futerfas’ colorful client list, from a woman whose family trafficked cocaine out of their Corona, Queens pizzeria to an investment broker who sold NFL and NBA players millions of dollars of worthless unregistered promissory notes. Futerfas has represented multiple alleged associates of various of the notorious “Five Families” of organized crime in New York City
There’s also this:
In 2016, Futerfas represented Nikita Kuzmin, a Russian man who created a computer malware that stole millions of dollars from bank accounts. Kuzmin was jailed for 37 months but Futerfas helped him avoid further imprisonment; instead he was ordered to pay close to $7 million to the victims.
And there’s this:
Futerfas also represented Alfonse Russo, a descendant of another crime family, who as a teenager in 1998 was convicted of beating a black man in a racially motivated attack.
The man defends thugs. He gets them off. Junior chose the right guy. Perhaps Futerfas is a family friend, although that’s not clear.
This was a good hire, because the New York Times was at it again, with another bombshell:
Before arranging a meeting with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer he believed would offer him compromising information about Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump Jr. was informed in an email that the material was part of a Russian government effort to aid his father’s candidacy, according to three people with knowledge of the email.
The email to the younger Mr. Trump was sent by Rob Goldstone, a publicist and former British tabloid reporter who helped broker the June 2016 meeting. In a statement on Sunday, Mr. Trump acknowledged that he was interested in receiving damaging information about Mrs. Clinton, but gave no indication that he thought the lawyer might have been a Kremlin proxy.
Mr. Goldstone’s message, as described to The New York Times by the three people, indicates that the Russian government was the source of the potentially damaging information.
Donald Trump Jr. had been told that the Russian government was the source of the good stuff on Hillary. He called the meeting anyway. Is there a law against any of that? Yes, but he didn’t know, or maybe didn’t care, and now he’s in deep trouble:
There is no evidence to suggest that the promised damaging information was related to Russian government computer hacking that led to the release of thousands of Democratic National Committee emails. The meeting took place less than a week before it was widely reported that Russian hackers had infiltrated the committee’s servers.
But the email is likely to be of keen interest to the Justice Department and congressional investigators, who are examining whether any of President Trump’s associates colluded with the Russian government to disrupt last year’s election. American intelligence agencies have determined that the Russian government tried to sway the election in favor of Mr. Trump.
Randall Eliason would call this one more brick in that big, beautiful wall that excludes any reasonable doubt about what happened, but there is the other attorney now:
Alan Futerfas, the lawyer for the younger Mr. Trump, said his client had done nothing wrong but pledged to work with investigators if contacted.
“In my view, this is much ado about nothing. During this busy period, Robert Goldstone contacted Don Jr. in an email and suggested that people had information concerning alleged wrongdoing by Democratic Party front-runner, Hillary Clinton, in her dealings with Russia,” he told The Times in an email on Monday. “Don Jr.’s takeaway from this communication was that someone had information potentially helpful to the campaign and it was coming from someone he knew. Don Jr. had no knowledge as to what specific information, if any, would be discussed.”
That’s possible, or not:
Mr. Goldstone represents the Russian pop star Emin Agalarov, whose father was President Trump’s business partner in bringing the Miss Universe pageant to Moscow in 2013. In an interview Monday, Mr. Goldstone said he was asked by Mr. Agalarov to set up the meeting with Donald Trump Jr. and the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya.
Daddy’s good friend set this up, so Trump’s father is now implicated too – but only implicated – and everyone else did shut the hell up:
Ms. Veselnitskaya, for her part, denied that the campaign or compromising material about Mrs. Clinton ever came up. She said she had never acted on behalf of the Russian government. A spokesperson for Mr. Putin said on Monday that he did not know Ms. Veselnitskaya, and that he had no knowledge of the June 2016 meeting.
So there’s no crime:
At the White House, the deputy press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was adamant from the briefing room lectern that “the president’s campaign did not collude in any way. Don Jr. did not collude with anybody to influence the election. No one within the Trump campaign colluded in order to influence the election.”
That was before the New York Times’ bombshell. Sarah Huckabee Sanders has a thankless job, and the Big Guy broods in anger:
The president was frustrated by the news of the meeting, according to a person close to him – less over the fact that it had happened, and more because it was yet another story about Russia that had swamped the news cycle.
He was frustrated less over the fact that the meeting had happened? He knew or maybe didn’t care? That’s another brick in that big, beautiful wall that excludes any reasonable doubt about what happened.
Josh Marshall is not surprised:
It’s pretty straightforward. When Don Jr was contacted about meeting with the Russian lawyer who had dirt on Hillary Clinton he was told that the dirt was part of a Russian government operation. He took the meeting on that basis…
Less than six weeks before WikiLeaks released its first tranche of emails, only a month before that still never explained platform intervention, Donald Trump Jr was asked to take a meeting with a Russian lawyer who had dirt on Hillary Clinton. He was told that the dirt was the product of a Russian government program. He took the meeting in hopes of getting the dirt.
What else is there to say?
Sam Thielman, an investigative reporter for Talking Points Memo, has more to say:
Donald Trump Jr. has said he knew absolutely nothing about Veselnitskaya before their meeting, not even her name. She turned out to use the promise of information that could help his father’s campaign as a pretext to discuss reinstating a popular Russian-American adoption program, according to his version of events. What could be more harmless?
In fact, Veselnitskaya was already a key figure for the defense in one of the most notorious money-laundering scandals in recent memory, encompassing $230 million in public funds allegedly stolen from the Russians by a network of corrupt bureaucrats and routed into real estate sales, including some in Manhattan, through ironclad Swiss bank accounts. And she was accused of lobbying U.S. officials for a Russian NGO that sought to overturn the Russian ban on U.S. adoptions, according to a complaint filed with the U.S. Justice Department and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA).
She wasn’t some minor figure:
The legal proceedings in which Veselnitskaya was enmeshed contain a spy novel’s-worth of twists, turns and tragic, suspicious accidents. Sergei Magnitsky, a whistleblowing accountant who called attention to Russian bureaucrats’ alleged widespread embezzlement, was arrested and detained without trial for nearly a year until his death in 2009 from what prison staff described as “pancreonecrosis, ruptured abdominal membrane and toxic shock,” according to the United States government’s suit… The Russian Interior Ministry later revised the cause of death to heart failure. When Magnitsky’s family examined his body, they found bruises and that his fingers had been broken, according to an early draft of a report by then-president Dmitry Medvedev’s own investigative committee.
The incident led to a controversial piece of legislation: the 2012 Magnitsky Act, which sanctioned 18 Russian officials believed by the US to have been involved in Magnitsky’s death. Five days later, the Russian parliament voted to ban adoptions of Russian children by Americans, a move understood to be retaliation for the Magnitsky Act.
She was in the middle of this:
Veselnitskaya received her degree from Kutafin Moscow State Law University in 1998. In 2013, she agreed to represent Denis Katsyv, the son of Russian railroad baron Petr Katsyv and owner of the Prevezon group. The younger Katsyv was accused of collaborating with corrupt Russian officials in the money-laundering scheme. Then-U.S. attorney and “Sheriff of Wall Street” Preet Bharara led the charge against Prevezon; the company, his office said, had used cash from the theft to buy condos in Bharara’s jurisdiction.
That jurisdiction would be Manhattan, home to Trump Tower and all his other condo-skyscrapers. She had actually defended the Trump family’s interests in these matters, which aligned with Putin’s. She was a bit of a family friend:
The suit against Prevezon never went to trial. On March 11, Donald Trump fired Bharara, and on March 21, Nikolai Gorokhov, the Magnitsky family’s attorney and a key witness for the prosecution, fell from the fourth floor of an apartment building, apparently when a rope broke while he and others were trying to move a bathtub in through the window. He sustained head injuries.
The United States settled its case against Prevezon and its associated companies in May for $6 million, a fraction of the judgment a guilty verdict would likely have brought.
Donald Trump had said that Bharara was the one Obama-era US attorney he was going to keep – that amazing “Sheriff of Wall Street” – and one week later he fired Bharara without explanation. Putin, in 2012, had compiled a retaliatory “anti-Magnitsky” list of Americans who would be barred from ever setting foot in Russia. Bharara was high on that list. Five years later, Donald Trump, newly elected, with a little help from the Russians, fired Bharara, and then, with the help of the brilliant attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya, the lawsuit against Prevezon disappeared at very little cost to any Russian friend of Vladimir Putin. That has the feel of a big thank-you from Donald Trump to Vladimir Putin – but perhaps that’s all coincidence – and perhaps Trump’s son had no idea who this woman was.
Perhaps that’s so. As the man said, no single event standing alone may prove the case. But when assembled together, those individual bricks may build a wall – a big, beautiful wall – that excludes any reasonable doubt about what happened. There ought to be a law! There is.