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Trump Jr.'s Emails Renew Questions About Legality Of Russia Meeting


When Donald Trump Jr. met with a Russian lawyer last June, did he break any U.S. laws? That question got new attention today after the president's son released an email exchange that seems to confirm he was enthusiastic about taking up a foreign offer to help the Trump campaign. NPR's Peter Overby looks at the law that bans foreign influence in American elections.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: When The New York Times first reported the meeting this weekend, Donald Trump Jr. brushed off the gathering's importance. He said it primarily focused on U.S.-Russia adoption policy. The Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, appeared on NBC this morning. She agreed, saying there wasn't any juicy opposition research on Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. But she also said this.


NATALIA VESELNITSKAYA: (Through interpreter) It's quite possible that maybe they were looking for such information. They wanted it so badly.

OVERBY: Then this afternoon, Trump released his email conversation from last June with a British business associate who was arranging the meeting. The businessman Rob Goldstone said a Russian official had quote, "information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia." Trump replied, quote, "I love it."

His brother-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort also saw those Goldstone emails and attended the meeting. It happened on June 9, 2016. In July, hacked documents from the Democratic National Committee appeared online. Democrats accused the Trump campaign of colluding with the Russian hackers. Donald Trump Jr. went on CNN and laughed them off.


DONALD TRUMP JR: I mean I can't think of bigger lies. But that exactly goes to show you what the DNC and what the Clinton camp will do. They will lie and do anything to win.

OVERBY: And the candidate himself, Donald Trump Sr., wondered aloud if the hackers could dig up emails from Hillary Clinton's server.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.

OVERBY: This afternoon, White House Spokeswoman Sarah Sanders read a statement from President Trump about Donald Jr.


SARAH SANDERS: My son is a high-quality person, and I applaud his transparency.

OVERBY: But his son's meeting and the changing accounts of what happened do little to answer the legal questions about Russia's role in the 2016 elections. Robert Bauer is a Democratic campaign finance lawyer.

ROBERT BAUER: Of the evidence that we have to date, this is a case where a campaign may have been openly courting support from a foreign national in trying to win an election, and that is squarely prohibited by the federal campaign finance law.

OVERBY: Under the law, American politicians cannot take foreign contributions. They cannot solicit them. And they cannot give substantial assistance - vaguely defined - to foreign nationals who try to give. And those foreign nationals cannot give money or anything of value to American political campaigns. Most campaign finance law is full of exceptions and nuances. This one isn't. For example, Bauer notes that foreign nationals don't get the usual First Amendment free speech rights.

BAUER: That's simply not a calculation that is appropriate in the case of foreign national spending.

OVERBY: And if you're wondering how the campaign finance law got to be so hard-line, that's because of another foreign influence scandal 20 years ago. It was July of 1997 when the Senate kicked off weeks of hearings on Democratic National Committee money raisers whose cash seemed to come from China. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby
Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.