On Tuesday, after a series of increasingly detailed New York Times stories describing a previously undisclosed meeting between Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort and Kremlin-connected lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, and just as The Times was set to publish the emails of Trump Jr. arranged the meeting, the eldest Trump son tweeted the chain out himself.
Federal election laws prohibit a campaign from soliciting, accepting or receiving contributions – “anything of value,” including information about a political rival – from a foreigner or a foreign government. And while Trump is adamant that Veselnitskaya did not, in the end, deliver any of the “sensitive” information their intermediary promised the Kremlin had about Hillary Clinton, according to one expert he certainly appears to have conspired to get such information.
Tor Ekeland, a criminal defense lawyer who’s worked on several high-profile conspiracy cases, including former Reuters social media editor Matthew Keys and the hacker Lauri Love, explained to Rolling Stone exactly what’s so damning about the emails Trump Jr. tweeted.
“It’s incredibly clownish and amateurish that they just laid out hard evidence of, potentially, multiple criminal acts,” Ekeland says. “Violations of U.S. election laws, conspiracy … maybe they’re violating the Espionage Act, trafficking in personally identifiable information, aiding and abetting hacking.”
To meet the threshold for conspiracy, “all you need is an agreement between two or more people, and the agreement has to be to do something illegal, and then you have to do one act in furtherance of that agreement,” Ekeland says. “The act in furtherance doesn’t have to be illegal – like, driving to a bank [after you’ve agreed to rob the bank] isn’t illegal.”
In the same way, the Trump Jr., Kushner and Manafort meeting with Veselnitskaya might not, on its face, be illegal, but agreeing to accept contributions from a foreign government is. Trump Jr. arranging a meeting for that express purpose also would be, even if he didn’t receive any information – and that’s a big if, considering how many times members of the Trump campaign have lied and dissembled about similar meetings before.
To Ekeland, several other lines in the email chain would have set off alarm bells for a seasoned campaign lawyer, like the way in which Veselnitskaya is described. “‘Russian government attorney.’ [If I’m Trump Jr.,] I now know that I am meeting with somebody tied to the Russian government – I know that I am meeting with an agent of a foreign power,” he says. “That should have been a red flag: I’m setting up a meeting to get damaging information on my political opponent in the United States during an election.”
That’s not all, Ekeland says. “Another phrase that they say: ‘official documents.’ They say they’ve got damning official documents. Now, an official document, that could be a government document that’s, say, maybe top secret? I don’t know, right? … You’ve got the elements for conspiracy there for a number of crimes. You don’t know if those documents are classified, you’re meeting with the Russian government? I mean, holy fuck.”
To Ekeland, it’s almost maddening how cut-and-dry the case is, and how little appears being done about it. “It was his son – the president’s son – his son-in-law and most trusted adviser, Jared Kushner, and his campaign manager meeting at Trump Tower – at his house! They had a meeting at the [presumptive Republican nominee’s] house!” he says.
If Trump Jr. were anyone else, Ekeland says, there’s little doubt the FBI would be raiding his home. But for a number of reasons – his relationship with the president, a Jeff Sessions-led DOJ, and the fact that this is just one thread in a large knot special counselor Robert Mueller is delicately attempting to untangle – no one should expect Trump Jr. to be escorted out of Trump Tower in handcuffs anytime soon.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders addressed Donald Trump Jr.’s emails at today’s White House Press Briefing. Watch here.