WASHINGTON — A Washington law professor answered with nary a nanosecond’s hesitation when asked what advice he’d offer President Donald Trump’s eldest son Monday, as the Russia scandal inched its way through the First Family.
”I would tell him that he should get a lawyer,” said Paul Berman of George Washington University.
He made that suggestion in an interview just before 3 p.m. Within the hour, Donald Trump Jr. confirmed in a statement that he had, in fact, retained legal counsel in this mushrooming controversy.
It followed Trump Jr.’s own admission over the weekend that he met a Russian attorney with ties to the Putin government during the last election, in the hope of gaining dirt on Hillary Clinton.
The news marks the first evidence that the Trump family sought electoral assistance from someone in Russia, after months of allegations that officials from that country stole and distributed emails to influence the U.S. election.
Lawyers for two former White Houses said this means legal trouble.
The chief ethics lawyer to George W. Bush, Richard Painter, likened it to treason, and to conspiring with a burglar: ”Going to a known (thief) to buy a TV can get you charged with attempting to buy stolen goods. Going to the Russians for info on Clinton(?)…
”In the Bush Administration we would have had him in custody for questioning by now.”
Barack Obama’s White House counsel pointed in another direction: campaign law. Bob Bauer said it’s illegal to assist foreign nationals seeking to influence a federal election, illegal to solicit their help, and illegal to co-ordinate with them.
In a statement, Trump Jr. said he didn’t know who Natalia Veselnitskaya was when he met her. He said a business associate put them in touch. And she offered no useful information when he met her at Trump Tower in June 2016, along with then-campaign manager Paul Manafort and presidential staffer and son-in-law Jared Kushner, Trump Jr. said.
But Bauer said it strains credulity that three senior staffers sat down with Veselnitskaya, without realizing they were soliciting help from a foreign national, which he called willful blindness: ”(That) is not helpful to their legal position.”
Several members of Trump’s family have now hired attorneys in the Russia affair: the president himself, Kushner, and now Trump Jr.
The president’s son characterized the news as no big deal. In one tweet Monday, Trump Jr. said he’d gladly answer questions from a congressional committee.
He also joked that the story of collusion was a non-issue: ”Obviously I’m the first person on a campaign to ever take a meeting to hear info about an opponent… went nowhere but had to listen.”
Berman also sees potential legal landmines in espionage laws and disclosure of information — it’s a crime to fail to disclose significant contacts with foreign nationals upon entering a government job. Kushner did not initially include multiple contacts with the Russians on his security-clearance paperwork.
Jonathan Turley, professor of public interest law at George Washington University, sees disclosure as the lone problem area. He said he’s had to fill out the same government form as Kushner and would list even brief meetings with academics at conferences.
As for the rest, he said he sees no obvious criminal act based on current information.
”It is hardly shocking to see a willingness to gather dirt during that election,” Turley wrote in a blog post. ”Quite frankly, most people in (Washington) look at that account and snicker that Trump Jr. was a fool to personally attend such a meeting. Other campaigns would have used surrogates…
”Unless there is more (and this is worthy of investigation), I see nothing close to treason or a crime in this account. That obviously does not fit with the breathless accounts given the story but the criminal code is not a code of political etiquette.”