Here's What an Election Law Expert Says About Donald Trump Jr.'s Emails

On Tuesday, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted out a an email chain—at the same time that the New York Times published its latest story about Trump Jr.—which some are saying is the most significant piece of evidence thus far about the Trump campaign and its connection with Russia. In the very granular sense, the emails may spell legal trouble for Trump Jr.; ATTN: spoke with an expert to find out.

The emails show that Trump Jr. had a conversation with a British publicist named Rob Goldstone, who told him the Russian government was trying to help his father's campaign and that a Russian lawyer wanted to meet to provide information that could be damaging to Hillary Clinton's campaign.

donald trump jr

“This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” Goldstone wrote to Trump Jr. “

“If it’s what you say I love it,” he replied.

A New York Times story published on Monday revealed that the conversation had occurred, and when Donald Trump Jr. found out the New York Times was going to publish the text of the emails, he tweeted them out first.

What's unclear at this point is if Trump Jr. broke the law. Some legal experts are saying his actions were clearly illegal because those involved in a campaign are not supposed to "solicit" a contribution from foreign nationals—and damaging information about Clinton could be considered a contribution, as campaigns pay good money for such dirt.

ATTN: spoke to Jessica Levinson, a law professor at Loyola Marymount University who focuses on election law and governance issues, to try and figure out what this all means.

ATTN: What law do you believe Donald Trump Jr. may have broken? 

JL: I think the federal statute that prevents contributions from foreign individuals or entities. I think if you look at the statute, based on the email trail, it looks like this could rise to the level of a solicitation. They didn't actually accept or receive information, because apparently there was no information given, but it seems like he did solicit information. If you look at the case law of how a thing of value is interpreted—we're not just talking about contributions in terms of a check or cash, but we're also talking about soliciting a thing of value, which is prohibited, and I think information that would be very helpful to a presidential campaign could absolutely be read as a thing of value. 

Who could bring charges against Trump Jr. if that's decided?

The Department of Justice and the FEC [Federal Election Commission].

How hard of a case would it be?

Let me state the obvious: It would be a highly publicized trial, with [everyone] looking and watching. How hard will it be? Last night I thought it would be quite hard. This morning it looks not as difficult. My guess is that we're not actually going to see a trial. There could be a settlement or a fine. I'm not saying anything that's stunning or surprising. Most cases don't go to trial. Most cases don't involve the president's son. But my suspicion is that Donald Trump Jr. and his lawyer are really not going to want to see the inside of a court room for a trial. If it does, issues they will talk about are going to hinge on these words "solicitation" and the phrase "thing of value." So there will be a fight over if the emails really show that he wanted this information... and then there will be a fight over if the case law really supports the idea that receiving information is a thing of value.

How does Trump Jr. tweeting out the emails affect things? Is that evidence?

I would think so. I would think that his lawyer threw his head against a wall about two dozen times when he saw those tweets. How does it impact it? He and his father have an amazing ability to do nothing but hurt their court cases. It affects it in terms of—he's providing a potential prosecution with wonderful evidence. The information will still have to be properly authenticated in a court of law, but it doesn't look like there are issues with that.

What else do lawmakers need to know to prove collusion between Trump's team and the Russians?

In terms of collusion, obviously that's separate from the statute we're talking about. To me, the really significant things are: We know now it's not just a one way street from Russia to the Trump administration, so it's not just Russia trying to help the Trump campaign. Now it's the Trump campaign saying, "We would really like to have this information. Thank you, and we'd be happy to work with you." We also know that it's the inner, inner circle of the Trump campaign. In terms of collusion, I hate to give you this kind of broad answer, but I would love to know more of the understanding of: Was this just isolated to this piece of information? Were there broader discussions? What exactly was the understanding of everybody who was in the room? We know they were amenable to having discussions? But does that rise to the level of collusion? 

  • Correction:July 12, 2017This piece was updated to clarify the first paragraph.
This story was first published July 11th 2017.