Nov 14

The Russian Connection: Don Jr. and Julian Affair

Yesterday in The Atlantic, Julia Ioffe discussed the private messages that were exchange between Donald Trump Jr. and the head of Wikileaks, Julian Assange that started during the campaign last Summer and continued until this past July. The messages, which The Atlantic obtained, were turned over to Congress as part its investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 election.

It’s not clear what investigators will make of the correspondence, which represents a small portion of the thousands of documents Donald Trump Jr.’s lawyer says he turned over to them. The stakes for the Trump family, however, are high. Trump Jr.’s June 2016 meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer with connections to Russia’s powerful prosecutor general, is already reportedly a subject of interest in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, as is the White House statement defending him. (Trump Jr. was emailed an offer of “information that would incriminate Hillary,” and responded in part, “If it’s what you say I love it.”) The messages exchanged with WikiLeaks add a second instance in which Trump Jr. appears eager to obtain damaging information about Hillary Clinton, despite its provenance.

Though Trump Jr. mostly ignored the frequent messages from WikiLeaks, he at times appears to have acted on its requests. When WikiLeaks first reached out to Trump Jr. about putintrump.org, for instance, Trump Jr. followed up on his promise to “ask around.” According to a source familiar with the congressional investigations into Russian interference with the 2016 campaign, who requested anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, on the same day that Trump Jr. received the first message from WikiLeaks, he emailed other senior officials with the Trump campaign, including Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, Brad Parscale, and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, telling them WikiLeaks had made contact. Kushner then forwarded the email to campaign communications staffer Hope Hicks. At no point during the 10-month correspondence does Trump Jr. rebuff WikiLeaks, which had published stolen documents and was already observed to be releasing information that benefited Russian interests.

WikiLeaks played a pivotal role in the presidential campaign. In July 2016, on the first day of the Democratic National Convention, WikiLeaks released emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee’s servers that spring. The emails showed DNC officials denigrating Bernie Sanders, renewing tensions on the eve of Clinton’s acceptance of the nomination. On October 7, less than an hour after the Washington Post released the Access Hollywood tape, in which Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women, Wikileaks released emails that hackers had pilfered from the personal email account of Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta.

On October 3, 2016, WikiLeaks wrote again. “Hiya, it’d be great if you guys could comment on/push this story,” WikiLeaks suggested, attaching a quote from then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton about wanting to “just drone” WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange.

“Already did that earlier today,” Trump Jr. responded an hour-and-a-half later. “It’s amazing what she can get away with.”

Two minutes later, Trump Jr. wrote again, asking, “What’s behind this Wednesday leak I keep reading about?” The day before, Roger Stone, an informal advisor to Donald Trump, had tweeted, “Wednesday@HillaryClinton is done. #WikiLeaks.”

WikiLeaks didn’t respond to that message, but on October 12, 2016, the account again messaged Trump Jr. “Hey Donald, great to see you and your dad talking about our publications,” WikiLeaks wrote. (At a rally on October 10, Donald Trump had proclaimed, “I love WikiLeaks!”)

While there are questions as to how these exchanges would be pertinent to the investigation, TMP Editor Josh Marshall points out an article written by former Obama White House Counsel Bob Bauer at Just Security on the potential criminal case

A charge of illegal coordination is consistent with a conspiracy, aiding or abetting, or “substantial assistance” source of liability. It is the campaign finance law equivalent to what has been referred to in the public debate as “collusion.” In other words coordination is a legally prohibited form of collusion: spending by Russia, if coordinated with the campaign, is a contribution to the campaign. The contribution, of course, would be illegal. It is important to underscore here that this area of law applies to any and all coordinated spending beneficial to the campaign, not only to coordination with Russians, the Russian government, or other foreign nationals (think: Wikileaks). [..]

A question clearly raised by the new information is whether the Trump campaign’s communications about the hacked emails–through both public statements and private contacts–constituted in effect, for legal purposes, a request or suggestion that funds be spent to acquire the stolen emails. The candidate certainly requested this assistance in his public remarks. Now, in a meeting scheduled with a Russian national with ties to the Putin regime, the campaign made clear that it was actively interested in having this kind of information.

Investigators will presumably explore whether the campaign was interested specifically in the stolen emails. Press reporting suggests that a) the campaign was interested in the emails, because the candidate had said so, and supporters like Mr. (Peter W.) Smith was engaged in a concerted effort to find them; and b) both the campaign and Mr. Smith were dealing with Russian nationals in the search for negative information on Mrs. Clinton. At any rate, any support coordinated with the Russians constitutes an illegal contribution from a foreign source.

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