Under What Circumstances Would Trump Russia Collusion Be Illegal?

Many laws may have been broken.
07/28/2017 09:13 am ET Updated Aug 02, 2017
Carlos Barria / Reuters

Since the Trump-Russia scandal first broke, the shift has been completed from there was no “collusion” to “collusion wouldn’t be illegal” to “everyone colludes.”

So the big unanswered question right now is, under what circumstances would collusion with Russian officials break the law?

The term “collusion” is really a catch all for many different behaviors that may or may not be illegal.

Until Robert Mueller’s investigation can be completed, and in the absence of any further bombshell’s being reported, we can only speculate about what laws might have been broken by Trump campaign surrogates based on what we already know.

Nonetheless, it’s important to establish a legal framework as we move forward so that if and when more information about Trump’s campaign activities involving Russia arise, we’ll have a sense of where those activities fit in on a legal basis.

Based on what we know about Donald Trump Jr.’s Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer offering dirt on Hillary Clinton, it’s possible that he may have violated 11 CFR 110.20 - A campaign finance law that prohibits “contributions, donations, expenditures, independent expenditures, and disbursements by foreign nationals (52 U.S.C. 30121, 36 U.S.C. 510).”

Under that law, it is also illegal for a campaign member to “solicit a thing of value from a foreign national,” and doesn’t require actually receiving the thing of value.

It’s foreseeable that conspiracy charges could come into play for certain members of the Trump team as well.

Judging by the number of Trump campaign people who seem to be involved in the story, it’s very possible that at some point, any or all of them could have conspired to violate several potentially applicable laws like 18 USC 1030—fraud and related activity in connection with computers; 18 USC 1343—wire fraud; or 52 USC 30121—contributions and donations by foreign nationals.

Further, if it were proven that campaign officials were aware of Russia’s attempts to hack the DNC and John Podesta and they did not share that information with authorities, they could be subject to an aiding and abetting charge (18 USC 2381).

The Logan Act, which states that unauthorized citizens who negotiate with foreign governments having a dispute with the United States are liable to be fined or imprisoned, may also be in play.

Bribery is another possibility. If, for example, the Don J.r meeting resulted in some sort of agreement like “Russia helps Trump win the election. In exchange, we want you to settle the Prevezon case and repeal the Magnitsky sanction,”, then that feels a lot like bribery, under Federal prosecution of public corruption in the United States

Don’t forget the possible obstruction of justice charges that Trump himself could potentially face at some point in the future.

There are many possibilities there: firing of James Comey (intimidation), threatening Sally Yates before her testimony, threatening James Comey about “better hope there are no tapes,” demanding loyalty from Comey in their oval office meeting, asking the NSA director if they could shut down the Russia investigation, threatening Robert Mueller’s Job, threatening to fire Jeff Sessions - all of these actions could be viewed as attempts to obstruct justice.

The toughest aspect of proving obstruction legally is demonstrating intent, but there’s many ways that could be done. For example, there’s Trump’s statements to Russia diplomats that firing Comey “relieved a great pressure on the Russia thing,” telling others to leave the room for his meeting with Comey, asking Mike Rogers and Dan Coates if there was anything they could do to end the investigation, etc.

Lastly, it’s possible that espionage and treason could come into play, but only if major new evidence is revealed.

For example, if a Trump campaign official directed or advised the Russian government on who to hack and when to release the information, that could constitute espionage. But that seems unlikely, considering Russia was incentivized to hack the DNC and try to help Trump regardless of what anyone on the Trump team thought about it.

As for Treason, it’s theoretically possible it could come into play, but it’d be incredibly difficult to prove.

Treason is defined as “Whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere, is guilty of treason and shall suffer death, or shall be imprisoned not less than five years and fined under this title but not less than $10,000; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States.”

Charging anyone with treason in connection to the Trump-Russia scandal may also require the U.S. declaring war on Russia, which obviously nobody but a handful of quacks would ever want to see happen.

The bottom line is that many laws may have been broken, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We may be getting ahead of ourselves, but don’t fall for the “none of this would be illegal anyway” rhetoric, because although collusion per se isn’t the crime in it of itself, it’s an umbrella term and there are any number of possible crimes that were committed. Whether we’ll see charges or prosecution, that’s another story.

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