The openness of the Trump campaign to obtain help from the Russian government is most clearly illustrated by communications of Trump Jr. regarding the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower. He was told a “Russian government attorney” wanted to meet to “provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary,” provided as Russian government support for Trump. Rather than going to the FBI, Trump Jr. replied, “I love it, then told senior campaign staff, and brought Manafort and Kushner to the meeting itself. The report found that the conduct of Trump Jr. implicates the ban on soliciting a contribution from an individual that he knew was a foreign national.
Yet, Trump Jr. was not charged. Although the courts have not squarely addressed the issue, the report acknowledged that opposition research should be treated as an in-kind contribution that is subject to the foreign national ban. As Mueller notes, a foreign government that directed its intelligence apparatus towards digging up dirt on American political candidates 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.”
However, the main reason Mueller did not charge Trump Jr. is because he could not establish that the violation was done “willfully,” meaning that he could not prove that Trump Jr. knew that asking the Russian government for “dirt” on an opponent was illegal. Notably, Mueller had never called Trump Jr. before the grand jury to press him on his knowledge of the law.
Establishing willfulness is only necessary for criminal campaign finance violations. For the Federal Election Commission to seek civil penalties, it simply needs to find that Trump Jr. solicited a contribution from a person he knew was a foreign national. As the July 2017 federal complaint by the Campaign Legal Center, filed with Common Cause and Democracy 21, alleged, and as Mueller has demonstrated, that has been established.
The Federal Election Commission should take action on this pending complaint, but the problem extends much wider. The special counsel report described the wide ranging digital Russian electioneering efforts, which should prompt Congress to update campaign finance laws for the 21st century. Finally, we should all be demanding that candidates who are vying to represent us pledge not to accept help from foreign powers.
See also Brendan Fischer, What the Mueller Report Tells Us About Campaign Finance Law and Foreign Interference.