This post has been updated with news and more legal opinions about Donald Trump Jr. sharing emails that appear to confirm he knew about Russia's intent to help his father win before he took a meeting with a Russian lawyer.
The New York Times reported — and Donald Trump Jr. appeared to confirm — that he agreed to a meeting with a Russian lawyer who had damaging information on Hillary Clinton after getting an email that the Russian government was trying to help his father win the election.
“It's as close as you can get to a smoking gun” of whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, said Jeffrey Jacobovitz, a white-collar lawyer who represented officials in the Clinton White House and now is with Arnall Golden Gregory. And it could mean Trump Jr. crossed the legal line on collusion with Russia.
First, a reframing of the way we think of collusion. Collusion actually is a political term; there's no line in the criminal code that says you go to jail for colluding with a foreign adversary.
But you can go to jail for conspiring with a foreign adversary to influence or undermine an election, and Jacobovitz thinks what Trump Jr. did, as documented by emails he himself shared on Twitter, could rise to that level.
“Absolutely,” Jacobovitz replied when asked if these emails firm up evidence that Trump Jr. had intent to commit a crime by conspiring with the Russians. “You may have crossed the line on conspiracy to commit election fraud or conspiracy to obtain information from a foreign adversary,” he said. “You cannot benefit from a foreign adversary in this kind of scenario.”
Other legal minds agree. "It's a shocking admission of a criminal conspiracy," said Jens David Ohlin, associate dean of Cornell Law School, in a statement shared with The Post. "The conversation will now turn to whether President Trump was personally involved or not. But the question of the campaign's involvement appears settled now. The answer is yes."
In the emails, Trump Jr. associate Rob Goldstone tells Trump Jr. that Russian officials “offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and be very useful to your father. This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump."
What special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and his team of a dozen or so practiced investigators are probably looking for is evidence that the Trump campaign intended to illegally conspire with Russia to help its campaign or hurt Clinton's. (Russia is also known for tricking people into doing its bidding.)
The fact that Trump Jr. took this meeting while being told what the Russians were up to is as clear as intent can get, legal experts say.
“If he received an email in advance saying, 'This is coming from the Russian government,' he's certainly knowledgeable about where the information is coming from,” Jacobovitz said. “And he attempts to attend a meeting with the hope and intent to obtain inside dirt on Hillary Clinton. That would go a long way in trying to determine whether it's conspiracy. … It's not as if he walks into the meeting and he's surprised by what he's hearing.”
Another piece of evidence to stack up in the “intent” column: Why were two of Trump's top campaign aides also invited to the meeting? Trump Jr. says Trump's then-campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner would also be there to meet with the Russian lawyer. It suggests that the Trump campaign put a very high premium on the meeting.
And it raises the question, as asked by The Fix's Aaron Blake, of what President Trump himself knew about the meeting. (The White House says the president wasn't aware of this meeting and denies any collusion by anyone in his campaign.)
More legal questions: Was anything agreed to in this meeting by either side? We know from both sides that in addition to sitting down to talk dirt on Clinton, there was a discussion about American adoptions of Russian children and sanctions the Russian government opposes against suspects of human rights abuses.
A month after the June 2016 meeting, thousands of emails from the Democratic National Committee were leaked on the eve of Democrats' convention, leading the DNC's chair to resign. Members of Congress with access to intelligence said Russians had already hacked into those emails by the time Trump Jr. met with the Russian lawyer.
Jacobovitz said Mueller and his team will certainly be investigating whether there was some kind of quid pro quo between the Trump campaign and Russia on sanctions vs. damaging emails to Clinton.
The emails also appear to confirm the version of events as told by the Russian lawyer in the meeting, who has ties to the Russian government, and is referred by Trump's associate as a Russian government attorney. In an interview with NBC's “Today” concerning why Trump Jr. wanted to take the meeting, the lawyer said he was “longing” for information on Clinton.
Trump Jr. originally told the Times this was about adoptions. But in the emails, he says in response to an offer to meet with a Russian with dirt on Clinton: “If it's what you say I love it,”
Also worth noting: Trump himself has drawn a line in the sand of what collusion means to him, a definition he may come to regret. Essentially, the president has said, collusion is knowing about something going on illegally and not doing anything about it.
Under that definition, it appears the Trump campaign rocketed past its own definition. It's not normal, and it may not even be legal, to meet with a foreign adversary expecting dirt on your opponent.
Jacobovitz said conspiracy to commit election fraud is the big legal fish Mueller and his team may be trying to fry. But they're probably also looking at a whole host of laws that could have been broken under this scenario: quid pro quo with the Russians, bribery, potential perjury related to what members of the Trump campaign said under oath to Congress and failing to disclose these contacts in official security forms.
“This goes further than collusion,” he said. Especially now that Trump Jr. appeared to provide proof to all of this.