As shoe after shoe after shoe keeps dropping about the Trump Tower meeting Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort had with a Russian lawyer and other questionable intermediaries, there has been a quiet but significant effort by prominent legal minds to defend, or at least be skeptical of, the whole affair. The thrust of these counterarguments is that the main characters did nothing wrong because the law simply doesn't penalize anything that happened at the meeting.
The defenses run the gamut: The Trump team couldn't have broken campaign-finance laws because seeking and receiving damning materials on a political adversary is what campaigns do all the time, so federal law doesn't apply. Or, if the law does reach what transpired at the meeting, the promised "dirt" on Hillary Clinton isn't the type of in-kind contribution or "thing of value" that federal law forbids foreign nationals from making. Or, if the damaging information doescount as an illegal campaign contribution from a foreign national, the penalties would only be civil in nature — which means Robert Mueller, the Russia special counsel, can't just prosecute Trump Jr. or his associates over what happened at that fateful June 2016 gathering.
By far the most intriguing of all these defenses is the suggestion, advanced by First Amendment expert and UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, that Trump Jr. and crew were merely exercising their constitutional right to solicit and receive a campaign boost from Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Kremlin-linked attorney who requested the meeting. And that shemay also have been acting within her rights to share the Clinton dirt with Trump's inner circle. As if there's somehow a free-standing, free-speech right to exchange opposition research, no matter the nationality of the source. And the Constitution would suffer if we criminalize these acts.
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Volokh's arguments and hypotheticals are thoughtful, compelling even: "If the Clinton campaign heard that Mar-a-Lago was employing illegal immigrants in Florida and staffers went down to interview the workers, that would be a crime," he writes as one of his examples. A Slovakian student temporarily in the U.S., he writes in another, would similarly be forbidden from sharing potentially explosive information about Trump's dealings in her home country. These and other scenarios are meant to illustrate how the federal ban on foreign nationals making election-related contributions — including "anything of value" to a campaign, which would encompass the Clinton dirt — would sweep far too broadly. And when a ban lends itself to such a "substantially broad" reading, Volokh explains, that means the ban itself is unconstitutional on its face.