It is time to set aside partisan politics and acknowledge that Russia’s attempt to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election is unprecedented in this country’s history and gravely troubling. Never before has a foreign government so clearly tried to affect a presidential campaign. This calls into question the very integrity of our electoral system and demands a thorough and impartial investigation.
The revelation this week that Donald Trump Jr. met with Russian officials in an effort to obtain information damaging to Hillary Clinton powerfully belies President Donald Trump’s claim that this is a “witch hunt” and there was no collaboration between his campaign and Russia. Trump Jr.’s conduct also may have violated federal election law.
The New York Times reported this week that in June 2016 Trump Jr. received an email from a British publicist, Rob Goldstone, who has extensive contacts in Russia. Goldstone wanted to arrange a meeting between Trump and two Russian real estate developers who said that a Russian prosecutor had “offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful.” The prosecutor made clear that the information would be “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
All, regardless of political affiliation, should be outraged that top officials in a presidential campaign – including the candidate’s son, son-in-law, and campaign manager – were eager to receive help from the Russian government to influence the outcome of the election. But it is clear that this is part of a much larger, deeply disturbing pattern.
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Trump Jr. responded enthusiastically: “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.” Goldstone arranged a phone call and then a meeting on June 9, 2016, at Trump Tower, between Trump Jr. and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. Jared Kushner and then-campaign chair Paul Manafort attended the meeting. Kushner and Manafort were sent the email chain that had the subject line “Russia - Clinton - private and confidential.”
The emails released by Trump Jr. show that top Trump officials knew of the Russian government’s support for Trump and were eager to gain Russian assistance. Trump Jr., as well as Kushner and Manafort, may have violated federal law, which makes it a federal crime for any person to “solicit” “anything of value” from a foreign citizen. Prior cases make clear that information is deemed a thing of value in this context.
All, regardless of political affiliation, should be outraged that top officials in a presidential campaign – including the candidate’s son, son-in-law, and campaign manager – were eager to receive help from the Russian government to influence the outcome of the election. But it is clear that this is part of a much larger, deeply disturbing pattern and the whole story is not yet known.
United States intelligence agencies have determined that entities linked to the Russian government hacked computers, including at the Democratic National Committee, and leaked information. Also, a Department of Homeland Security official has testified that Russian-tied hackers tried to hack election-related computer systems in 21 states.
As with so many scandals, evidence is coming out piece-by-piece linking Trump campaign officials to Russia. Michael Flynn, who was fired as National Security Adviser for lying about his ties to Russia, may have violated federal law in not registering as an agent of a foreign government and disclosing payments he received. Paul Manafort, who for a time managed Trump’s presidential campaign, profited enormously from business dealings with Russian oligarchs. He, too, may have violated federal law by not registering and disclosing this. Moreover, it seems clear that Attorney General Jeff Sessions violated federal laws that prohibit lying to Congress in not truthfully answering questions about his contacts with Russia.
All of this is in the context of a president who, more than any in recent memory, has urged policies more favorable to Russia and who told Russian officials that he fired FBI Director James Comey to end the Russia investigation.
What now? Special counsel Robert Mueller must investigate whether any crimes were committed and prosecute those who violated the law, even if it includes members of Trump’s family. But that is not enough.
There must be a bipartisan commission, like the 9/11 commission, with full subpoena authority to investigate Russian attempts to influence the election and Trump committee ties to it. The country, Republicans and Democrats alike, needs to know the full truth and to make sure this never happens again.
Erwin Chemerinsky is Dean and Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.