Collusion with the Russians in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is turning out to be as tough to define as pornography. The “know it when you see it” rule changes depending on which legal expert you talk to and news media you read or watch.
John Dean, former White House counsel for Richard Nixon, knows a bit about collusion as the mastermind of the Watergate break-in and cover up. He refutes the Fox News claim that the nation must be at war to bring charges of collusion and treason. And he cites the case of Oregon native Adam Gadahm, charged with providing aid and comfort to Al Qaeda, as the first person charged with treason since the World War II era. Gadahm was killed by an American drone before he could be captured.
“Surely Fox knows it fooled only fools,” Dean says when asked about Donald Trump Jr.’s problematic meeting with a Russian lawyer. “The Justice Department as recently as 2006 indicted for ‘aid and comfort’ to our enemies, the form of collusion better known as treason. Collusion is the perfect word to cover such crimes, pejorative and inclusive.”
Laurie Levenson is professor of law and ethical advocacy at Loyola Law School. She says the applicable criminal crime is conspiracy under 18 USC Sec. 371. “That would cover a conspiracy by two or more persons to violate a law of the United States or ‘to defraud the United States.’ You need an election law specialist to tell you whether asking the Russians for negative information on Hillary Clinton violated federal law.”
And then there’s this: “Politicians seek dirt on other candidates — the dirtier the better. That is what ‘opposition research’ is all about,” says Saikrishna Prakash, law professor at the University of Virginia. She went on to say the meeting was “a nothing burger with special sauce,” a term we were unable to find in the legal dictionary.
Maybe that’s why Trump Senior came out Wednesday in support of eldest son, saying, “I think many people would have held that meeting.” Tell that to the Al Gore presidential campaign. A junior staffer was suspended in 2000 after the campaign contacted the FBI about the staffer’s remarks about dealings with a “mole” in opponent George W. Bush’s campaign. A tape of Bush’s debate rehearsal had been sent mysteriously to the Gore campaign, and the junior staffer joked that he directed that mole. He later told the FBI he had made a joke.
What’s obvious here is that Trump Senior was criminal in unleashing his son, son-in-law and daughter on his presidential campaign and installing the last two in the White House. Junior, meanwhile, continues to work with the Republican National Committee on fundraising and makes the banquet rounds. While one may argue that on the surface these are good, decent people — and there is no evidence even that is true — all are inexperienced and unknowledgeable in governing a nation, particularly a democracy. That they share with dad, whose other staff and Cabinet appointment are equally questionable.
Still, even owing for naiveté and being overly eager to promote dad, red flags were planted all over this meeting, including the invitation. You don’t have to be a doctor to know that the poor wretch passed out in your waiting room is sick. You don’t have to be a bank manager to know that the large man wearing a mask holding a gun in your lobby is a robber. And any 40ish businessman with a college degree like Junior should know that Russians bearing gifts are going to expect a favor down the line.
So call it collusion. Or conspiring with a foreign government to destabilize the United States. Or lying on government security clearance forms. Or soliciting something of value from a foreign national to use in the campaign. (The question has been asked, how much would Hillary Clinton have paid to keep those e-mails private?) Or call it a campaign finance violation — and include those puzzling Trump e-mails soliciting campaign donations sent illegally to some members of the Icelandic parliament.
Junior’s meeting with the Russians may not pass the “know it when you see it” test, but it damn sure doesn’t pass the “know it when you smell it” test.