Why Mueller didn’t bring campaign finance charges over the Trump Tower meeting

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Special counsel Robert Mueller considered bringing campaign finance charges to Trump campaign officials in connection with their June 2016 Trump Tower meeting but ultimately could not establish the value of information offered by Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya.

Specifically, Mueller looked at whether the meeting would invoke the ban on campaign contributions from foreign nationals. He keyed in Veselnitskaya’s offer to give the campaign “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. Mueller’s report, released Thursday, noted Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner were aware of the purpose of the meeting and looked forward to receiving the Russian-sourced information described as “documents and information that would incriminate Hillary.”  

Under federal law, campaigns are barred from taking or soliciting a “thing of value” from foreign nationals in connection with an election. The ban includes monetary gifts, such as campaign contributions, or uncompensated gifts such as polling data or mailing lists.

“Political campaigns frequently conduct and pay for opposition research,” Mueller notes in his report. “A foreign entity that engaged in such research and provided resulting information to a campaign could exert a greater effect on an election, and a greater tendency to ingratiate the donor to the candidate, than a gift of money or tangible things of value.”

Though Mueller noted that such information could be more important to a campaign than money, he pointed out that courts have not defined uncompensated opposition research as a “thing of value” that could amount to a contribution under campaign finance law.

Moreover, the investigation would have trouble proving that the value of the promised Clinton “dirt” would surpass the $2,000 threshold for a criminal charge or $25,000 for felony charges — numbers commonly used to establish the value of non-monetary contributions. Mueller noted that while opposition research often is very valuable to a campaign, “it appears that the information ultimately delivered in the meeting was not valuable.”

Mueller added he did not pursue charges against members of the Trump team at the meeting in part because the investigation did not find evidence that they acted with “general knowledge of the illegality of their conduct.”

The report noted that the prosecution has to establish a defendant knew their conduct was illegal to charge an individual. Mueller found that “the investigation has not developed evidence that the participants in the meeting were familiar with the foreign-contribution ban.”

Mueller explained “later efforts to prevent disclosure of the nature of the June 9 meeting” mostly came from people that did not attend the meeting and has more to do with “avoid[ing] political consequences rather than any prior knowledge of illegality.”

Later in the report, Mueller began to explain why the First Amendment “could pose constraints on a prosecution,” but any further explanation, described as information that could harm an ongoing matter, is redacted.

Some campaign finance experts on Thursday disagreed with Mueller’s reasoning.

Richard Hasen, University of California–Irvine School of Law professor, argued in an opinion piece for Slate that Mueller “left Donald Trump Jr. off the hook too easily” for potential campaign finance violations, noting that federal law prevents campaigns from soliciting contributions from foreign individuals. Hasen described Mueller’s argument that the potential Clinton “dirt” could have been worth less than $25,000 as “ridiculous.”

Paul S. Ryan, vice president of policy and litigation at Common Cause, questioned why Mueller argued that proving “coordination” between the Trump campaign and Russian government would require a specific agreement, noting that campaign finance laws define coordination as expenditures made “at the request or suggestion of” a candidate.

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