These issues arise, of course, in a period of intensely polarized politics. It is natural, then, for even entirely impartial observers to ask how much of the concern over the legal implications of the Trump-Russia links may be yet another predictable byproduct of partisan conflict. It is a question that will be surely asked of a critic, such as myself, who has legally represented Democratic parties and candidates, including presidential candidates, for decades. But the facts and circumstances here are without precedent in the history of campaign-finance enforcement, and it is hard to imagine that any truly neutral analyst informed about the law would conclude otherwise.
As first reported Monday by The Atlantic, the private Twitter messages, which began in September 2016, “show WikiLeaks, a radical transparency organization that the American intelligence community believes was chosen by the Russian government to disseminate the information it had hacked, actively soliciting Trump Jr.’s cooperation.” The group’s solicitations of support were wide-ranging, from a request that the campaign “push” a particular news story to a suggestion that Trump Sr. tweet out a link enabling the media and others to more efficiently mine the trove of stolen emails.
Even before Monday’s revelations, it seemed clear that the Trump campaign was aware Moscow was committed to Trump Sr.’s candidacy and ready to help. Campaign representatives pursued various contacts with the Russians, including a June 2016 meeting between Trump Jr. and other senior staffers and a Kremlin-connected lawyer who they thought might have damaging information about Clinton. The president himself publicly called for the Russians to locate and make public Clinton’s private emails.
The president also repeatedly touted WikiLeaks’ work. The group, which Trump Sr. once said he “love[s],” was itself a source of foreign national support for his campaign: It is a self-described “international” operation, based overseas, whose activities are controlled by a foreign national, Julian Assange. During the campaign, Trump officials would have been aware, from public reporting, that intelligence experts believed the Democratic National Committee emails WikiLeaks disseminated came from Russian hackers. And Assange openly promoted his anti-Clinton political goals.
Trump Jr., who worked on his father’s race, was WikiLeaks’ direct correspondent, but according to The Atlantic’s reporting, he kept the senior campaign team in the loop, informing them via email that WikiLeaks had contacted him. His messages also suggest that he collaborated with WikiLeaks in very specific terms. Pressing for more media attention to its cache of purloined emails, WikiLeaks encouraged Trump Jr. in October 2016 to tweet a link that would facilitate reporters’ review of the material. He did just that, two days later. More strikingly, within minutes of WikiLeaks’ message, Trump Sr.—one month before he was elected president—tweeted a complaint about the “very little pick-up” the “dishonest media” had given the group’s cache of emails.