Mueller Weighed Charges Against Trump Jr. Over Tower Meeting

(Bloomberg) -- Special Counsel Robert Mueller said he considered charging President Donald Trump’s eldest son and other participants in a June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with campaign-finance violations but chose not to because of a high bar to prove they intended to break the law.

Mueller’s decision not to charge Donald Trump Jr. or anyone else at the gathering, including Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, was based in part on a lack of evidence about their state of mind when they agreed to meet a Kremlin-linked lawyer who promised dirt on Hillary Clinton, the special counsel said in his report released Thursday.

Campaign finance violations require that the conduct be willful because, like some tax crimes, it isn’t "obviously illegal," said Harry Sandick, a former federal prosecutor who’s now a criminal defense lawyer. That’s a departure from the usual rule that ignorance of the law is not a defense, he said.

"For a willful violation, you must know that what you are doing violates some known legal duty," said Sandick, who isn’t involved in the probe. "Trump Jr. was not viewed as someone who necessarily would have known the law in this area."

The Trump Tower meeting -- and an effort to cover up what unfolded there -- has been cited by some Democrats as evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia designed to help him defeat Clinton. Trump later helped issue a misleading statement about the nature of the meeting, further outraging the president’s critics.

Mueller’s report ultimately said there wasn’t enough evidence to prove a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia. But the report delivered an exhaustive account of Trump’s efforts to head off or undermine the special counsel’s probe.

Mueller’s probe examined "efforts or offers by foreign nationals to provide negative information about candidate Clinton to the Trump Campaign," including the Trump Tower meeting, according to the report.

No ‘Strong Evidence’

U.S. campaign finance law bars foreigners from making contributions or donations to candidates "and prohibits anyone from soliciting, accepting, or receiving such contributions or donations," the special counsel said. While the law is broad, he said, cases are difficult to prove for a variety of reasons.

Mueller concluded that his team didn’t have admissible evidence that was likely to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the meeting’s participants knew they were breaking the law and that they "knowingly and willfully" intended to do so.

"The investigation has not developed evidence that the participants in the meeting were familiar with the foreign-contribution ban or the application of federal law to the relevant factual context," Mueller said. There also wasn’t "strong evidence of surreptitious behavior" or efforts to conceal the 2016 meeting at the time it happened, the report says.

Later efforts to conceal the meeting also didn’t support criminal charges, Mueller said, because those attempts "occurred more than a year later, involved individuals who did not attend the June 9 meeting, and may reflect an intention to avoid political consequences rather than any prior knowledge of illegality," according to the report.

‘Sensitive Information’

A British publicist who helped arrange the meeting told the younger Trump in an email that the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, had "very high level and sensitive information" that was "part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump." Trump Jr. replied, “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer."

Mueller concluded that if he charged the participants, Trump Jr. could respond by arguing he didn’t believe his response to the offer of dirt on Clinton broke the law. The same was true of Kushner and Paul Manafort, Trump’s ex-campaign chairman who has multiple convictions stemming from the Mueller probe.

"Given his less direct involvement in arranging the June 9 meeting, Kushner could likely mount a similar defense," Mueller said. "And, while Manafort is experienced with political campaigns, the office has not developed evidence showing that he had relevant knowledge of these legal issues."

‘Thing of Value’

Mueller said a criminal case against the meeting participants would also include proving that documents and information offered to a political campaign qualified as a "thing of value" under the law and therefore constituted a prohibited campaign contribution.

While Mueller said he could likely prove such value, it would be harder to establish that it exceeded the $2,000 threshold for a criminal violation and $25,000 for a felony. Part of the problem, Mueller said, is that Trump Jr. wasn’t certain about the value of the information when he agreed to the meeting, and ultimately the campaign officials were disappointed with what was offered.

"Although damaging opposition research is surely valuable to a campaign, it appears that the information ultimately delivered in the meeting was not valuable," Mueller said.

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