Surely among the worst attorneys ever to represent the president of the United States, Rudolph W. Giuliani asserted that there is nothing wrong with looking for dirt on political rivals, “Even if it comes from a Russian, a German, an American, doesn’t matter.” Wrong!
Let’s be clear. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III does not need to prove “collusion.” There is an array of crimes that might result from trying to get valuable information from a foreign entity or official. For instance, it violates federal law for “a foreign national, directly or indirectly, to 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, in connection with a Federal, State, or local election.” Likewise, it is illegal to “solicit, accept or receive” such help from a foreign national. That doesn’t require an ongoing, coordinated plot to tip the election. It would be sufficient if Donald Trump Jr., George Papadopoulos or anyone else asked, say Russian officials, to provide opposition research. We know how valuable that stuff is; after all, a lawyer for Hillary Clinton’s campaign and, before that, the conservative Free Beacon paid money to get “dirt,” if you will, on then-candidate Donald Trump.
“Giuliani is apparently as unfamiliar with this part of campaign-finance law as he is with the section that prohibits candidates from accepting undisclosed loans,” said Matthew Miller, a former Justice Department spokesman. “The bottom line is that it is illegal to accept a thing of value from a foreign government, and though there could be debates about whether information qualifies as a thing of value, the Trump campaign’s eagerness to accept foreign help shows just why this matter is under investigation.”
Former White House ethics counsel Norm Eisen agreed: “As seems to be the case almost every time [Giuliani] opens his mouth, he is wrong. It has long been recognized that providing opposition research is an in-kind contribution.”
In short, there is a case, based solely upon the Trump Tower meeting, that federal campaign law may have been violated. (Whether that applies to Trump Jr. only, or to his father as well, may depend on whom Trump Jr. called on that blocked phone number.) Of course, if bribery — such as money or assistance in exchange for a change in a party’s platform or a promise to relax sanctions — can be shown, that is a crime as well.
And anyone who insists Mueller must find evidence of “collusion” (a noncrime of uncertain definition) is misguided or intentionally misleading the public.
Last October, a white paper produced for the Brookings Institution by Eisen, Noah Bookbinder and Barry Berke laid out the kind of problematic conduct that can arise out of election chicanery:
Attempts to stop an investigation represent a common form of obstruction. Demanding the loyalty of an individual involved in an investigation, requesting that individual’s help to end the investigation, and then ultimately firing that person to accomplish that goal are the type of acts that have frequently resulted in obstruction convictions, as we detail. In addition, to the extent conduct could be characterized as threatening, intimidating, or corruptly persuading witnesses, that too may provide additional grounds for obstruction charges. . . .
Here, such actions may include fabricating an initial justification for firing [FBI director James B.] Comey, directing Donald Trump Jr.’s inaccurate statements about the purpose of his meeting with a Russian lawyer during the president’s campaign, tweeting that Comey “better hope there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations,” despite having “no idea” whether such tapes existed, and repeatedly denouncing the validity of the investigations.
These are not minor or subsidiary matters. It bears repeating that President Richard Nixon was never shown to have plotted or known in real time about the Watergate break-in. Trump’s “no collusion” defense is as silly as a “no conspiracy to commit burglary” defense would have been during Watergate.
We haven’t even touched on non-Russia-related matters, including Trump personal lawyer Michael Cohen’s payment of hush money to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels. If, as Daniels’s lawyer Michael Avenatti has claimed, there are other women and other unreported hush-money payments made on Trump’s behalf, we would be presented with an unprecedented attempt to conceal information (both the alleged affairs and the non-reporting) from voters.
In sum, we know a fraction of the information the special counsel’s team has assembled. Even looking simply at public information, there is a wealth of evidence that might be the basis for charging Trump and/or his inner circle with crimes. We’ll have to wait. In the meantime, however, no one should repeat the nonsense coming from Trump and his allies that Mueller must find “collusion.” The special counsel is looking for violations of law (as well as conducting a national security investigation) — and that can take many forms.
Moreover, Mueller’s charge is not only to find whether the president broke the law, but whether others did. As Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on the Senate floor Thursday morning:
The investigation has already yielded multiple indictments and guilty pleas. Yesterday, the Senate Intelligence Committee, in a bipartisan manner, confirmed that Russia sought to interfere with our elections, to sow discord, and tip the scales towards Donald Trump and against Secretary Clinton. The Trump administration itself has even taken punitive action against Russia’s actors named in Mueller’s investigation, and I salute the Chairman of the Intelligence Committee, the Republican senator form North Carolina, for being straightforward about this. Not so many on the other side of the aisle are.
Yet, again this morning, President Trump called the investigation a “disgusting, illegal, and unwarranted witch hunt . . . the greatest witch hunt in American history.” It’s amazing the rhetoric this man uses.
I would say to the president: It’s not a witch hunt when seventeen Russians have been indicted. It’s not a witch hunt when some of the most senior members of the Trump campaign have been indicted.
It’s not a witch hunt when Democrats and Republicans agree with the intelligence community that Russia interfered in our election to aid President Trump. Any fair-minded citizen, even the most ardent partisan, should be able to look at the facts and say that this investigation is not a “witch hunt.” The FBI Director Christopher Wray, appointed by President Trump — a Republican — said as much yesterday.
A final reminder: Under any circumstances, Trump himself is unlikely to be indicted. The question remains whether the evidence that Mueller turns up is so damning as to prompt a serious effort at impeachment — or perhaps a lesser punishment (e.g., censure). It’s a political question that voters, in part, will answer in November.