President Trump’s eldest son and top campaign aides violated campaign finance laws by accepting a meeting with a Russian lawyer who promised dirt on Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonTrump vows to ‘produce much, much more energy’ than Clinton, ‘anyone else’ Trump dodges on whether he accepted Putin’s hacking denial Watchdogs to DOJ: Trump Jr. meeting broke campaign finance laws MORE, according to a complaint filed by a trio of government watchdog groups.
In emails sent during the presidential campaign, Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump dodges on Russia sanctions bill US tells nations to give more traveler data or face sanctions: report Watchdogs to DOJ: Trump Jr. meeting broke campaign finance laws MORE Jr. was promised that a meeting with Kremlin-linked lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya would be able to provide “the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful.”
Trump Jr. took the meeting with Veselnitskaya, which was also attended by then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who was also a top campaign aide.
In a complaint filed to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and the Justice Department, Common Cause, the Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21 allege that accepting and attending the meeting amounted to soliciting an illegal campaign contribution from a foreign national.
The emails to Trump Jr. explicitly stated that the offer of information about Clinton, then the Democratic nominee for president, was “part of Russia and its governments’ support for Mr. Trump” and had been proffered by the “Crown prosecutor of Russia.”
Trump Jr. responded, “I love it especially later in the summer,” according to an email chain that was forwarded to Manafort and Kushner.
Both the meeting and the exchange violated the Federal Election Campaign Act, according to the groups.
The pretext for the meeting, providing negative information about Trump’s opponent, represents an in-kind campaign contribution, they say.
The law makes it illegal for a foreign national to directly or indirectly make a “contribution or donation of money or other thing of value, or to make an express or implied promise to make a contribution or donation” relating to an election. An advisory opinion from the FEC states the “thing of value” does not have to come at an actual cost.
Trump Jr.’s willingness to accept the opposition research means that he, under the law, solicited that in-kind donation.
Trump Jr. has discounted the meeting as being made under false pretenses and said the topic of damaging information against Clinton was never discussed.
During the course of the discussion, Veselnitskaya “changed subjects and began discussing the adoption of Russian children and mentioned the Magnitsky Act,” Trump Jr. claims.
“It became clear to me that this was the true agenda all along and that the claims of potentially helpful information were a pretext for the meeting,” he told The New York Times.
Trump said on Thursday said that “most people” would have taken the meeting.
“It’s called opposition research,” Trump said at a press conference in Paris. “Politics is not the nicest business in the world.”
While the complaint from the watchdog groups notes that the FEC has “exclusive jurisdiction over civil enforcement of the campaign finance laws,” the Justice Department is being looped in because of Trump Jr.’s alleged “knowing and willful” violation, which would be under its authority.
“The evidence is clear that Don Jr. knew that the offer of opposition campaign research came from the Russian government, and the law is clear that giving such valuable research for free would have been a contribution to the Trump campaign,” said Brendan Fischer of the Campaign Legal Center in a statement.
“By soliciting that contribution and arranging and attending a meeting to receive it, Don Jr. clearly violated the prohibition against soliciting a contribution from a foreign national,” continued Fischer, the director of the federal and FEC reform program at the group.
The filing adds to a growing list of legal complaints against those close to Trump and Veselnitskaya.
In addition to the investigations in the FBI and Congress about what role Russia had in interfering with the U.S. election last year, the complaint adds to a growing list of questions about Veselnitskaya and her presence in the United States.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is looking into whether the Russian lawyer was part of a Russia-driven lobbying campaign to overturn the Magnitsky Act, created to punish Moscow for the mysterious death of a Russian whistleblower.
It has also been revealed that she had been in the country for at least six months after being denied an extension of her temporary “immigration parole” initially granted by federal prosecutors to provide legal work to a company owned by Russian businessman Denis Katsyv, which was dealing with a case in New York.