The email chain released by the president’s son shows an intent to collude with Russia, veteran prosecutors and white-collar defense attorneys say.
Donald Trump Jr. may have just given Robert Mueller “smoking gun” evidence signaling his father’s presidential campaign colluded with the Russian government to win the 2016 election, according to veteran prosecutors and white-collar defense attorneys experienced in Washington scandals.
The president’s eldest son — in a surprise Tuesday tweet — shared what he said was a full email chain from June 2016 detailing his plans to set up a meeting with a Russian government lawyer who was willing to share damaging material about Hillary Clinton.
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Two of Donald Trump’s most senior campaign advisers — Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort — are also included in the “private and confidential” email exchange, which the lawyers interviewed by POLITICO say exposes them to the same potential federal criminal statutes as Trump Jr., including prohibitions on the solicitation or acceptance of anything of value from a foreign national, as well as a conspiracy to defraud the United States.
The smoking gun, according to the attorneys, is the wording throughout the emails that Trump Jr. exchanges with a broker for one of his father’s former Russian business partners. At one point, Trump Jr. responds “love it” at the prospect of material that would “incriminate” Clinton. In addition, the source of the material says the offer of the material is “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
“Extremely damaging,” said former Justice Department prosecutor Peter Zeidenberg. “Certainly shows an intent to collude with Russian government.”
Samuel Buell, a former federal prosecutor who worked with one of Mueller’s top deputies prosecuting Enron executives in the early 2000s, wrote in an email that the email chain “is very significant legally as it at least opens up the question of illegal campaign benefits from Russian sources, and the email is quite strong evidence of DJT Jr’s intent toward Russia.”
Buell, now a law professor at Duke University, said the Trump Jr. email exchange also has significant political resonance. “Pressure on Congress is rising to refuse to go along with the idea that collusion is an imagined problem. We get told ‘nothing burger’ and we end up getting a Whopper,” he said, referring to White House chief of staff Reince Priebus’ insistence over the weekend that the original media reporting was a non-story.
Trump Jr., who has hired New York criminal defense attorney Alan Futerfas as his personal attorney for Russia-related matters, has denied any wrongdoing.
Mueller has been on the job for less than two months leading the federal probe into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, though he’s surrounded by a team that includes FBI agents and Justice Department attorneys who have been on the underlying election hacking case for more than a year.
Mueller has the power to bring criminal indictments as part of his work, but legal experts say it will take significant time — a year or more, even — before he reaches that point. In the meantime, Trump Jr. and all the other key figures in the case are likely to be called in for interviews and, potentially, grand jury testimony.
A white-collar Washington lawyer who is representing a client mired in the Russia probe said there’s little doubt Mueller’s team welcomes what Trump Jr. just delivered about his Russia meeting via social media — that is, if they didn’t already have the messages through their own investigation.
“They’ve been handed a smoking gun,” the attorney said. “What none of us know is what else he’s got. He may have had all these emails already. He may have reams of paper. There’s no way to know what’s under the water line in terms of this investigation.”
The attorney, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of his work for an individual involved in the case, said Trump Jr. may be most at risk of legal repercussions because of his admission that he was willing to meet with the Russian attorney to obtain dirt on Clinton.
“I think he’s walked himself into a potential criminal offense here,” the lawyer said. But the disclosures could also be trouble for Kushner and Manafort since they are copied on the exchange and Trump Jr. at one point explains he’ll be bringing them along to the meeting at Trump Tower.
“They’re in the soup too,” the attorney said.
Trump Jr. and a spokesman for President Trump’s personal attorney, Marc Kasowitz, have insisted that the president himself wasn’t aware of the meeting that his son and the other senior campaign aides ultimately took with Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya.
A source close to Manafort told POLITICO on Tuesday that the campaign chairman hadn’t read all the way to the bottom of the email exchanges on his phone and that he didn’t even know who he was meeting with when he attended the 20- to 30-minute session. Kushner’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
Zeidenberg, who served on the DOJ special prosecution team during the George W. Bush-era Valerie Plame CIA leak investigation, said he had his doubts the two Trump campaign officials wouldn’t do their due diligence before attending the meeting.
“They’re busy. They’re not going to go to a meeting without reading down and seeing who it’s with. … I think any prosecutor would say these guys knew exactly what the purpose of the meeting was and why they took the meeting,” Zeidenberg said.
Given the high-level nature of the Trump campaign officials who were participating in the meeting, legal experts also say Mueller’s investigative team is primed to push for answers about what Trump knew about the overall effort to obtain opposition research from foreign officials.
“It’s an awfully senior group of people for the president to be ignorant. The implications for Don Jr. are obvious. But this is also pregnant with implications for the president,” said the attorney with a client involved in the Russia probe.
Legally, what matters most next is what Trump campaign officials and others pulled into the probe say under oath to Congress or Mueller — and where perjury and making false statements carry legal consequences that don’t exist when engaging with reporters or on social media.
“We are now beyond obstruction of justice in terms of what’s being investigated,” Clinton’s 2016 running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine, told reporters on Tuesday. “This is moving into perjury, false statements and even potentially treason.”
But Trump Jr.’s decision to post his email chain on Twitter has its own legal ramifications. The president’s son said in his initial message he did it “in order to be totally transparent,” though it was done just before The New York Times published a story detailing the content of the messages.
The white-collar attorney with a client involved in the Russia probe said he was stunned to see Trump Jr. publicize evidence that could incriminate him later on the investigation. “What the hell is he thinking even talking about it?” he said. “You’d think the first thing a lawyer would do is clap a hand over his mouth and take away his devices. He should not be talking. It’s insane.”
Trump Jr.’s potential troubles have been deepening by the day, starting when he first described the Veselnitskaya meeting in a Saturday statement to The New York Times, framing it as a discussion about a program for adoption of Russian children that the Kremlin canceled to retaliate for a U.S. law targeting Russian human rights abusers.
Trump Jr. then expanded on his explanation on Sunday, saying the Trump Tower meeting was initially presented to him as a chance to obtain opposition materials about Clinton. On Monday night, the Times reported about the existence of the email exchange.
Futerfas, Trump Jr.’s attorney, said in a Monday night statement that the media reporting was “much ado about nothing,” adding that “the bottom line” is that his client did “nothing wrong.” He said that the meeting with Veselnitskaya came during “an intensely busy time” for Trump Jr. and that he didn’t know the person who was supplying the Clinton opposition material or what the material would contain.
Lawyers have cast doubt on Trump’s ignorance defense.
“I don’t think that is an out,” said Robert Bauer, a former White House counsel under President Barack Obama and the Democrat’s 2008 campaign attorney. “If they accept the meeting on the understanding that they will be offered something of value — the opposition research — they are sending a clear signal that they would like to have it.”
Bauer added that accepting a meeting where there’s an understanding of purpose “raises a question under the federal campaign finance law” for which Trump Jr. could be held accountable.
A second white-collar attorney with experience in Washington scandal cases said Trump Jr. doesn’t need to have known about the specifics of the law he was violating to face potential criminal charges. “The law says everyone is presumed to know the law. That can be his defense. But that hasn’t saved people with far less sophisticated standing,” the source said.