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What Is And Isn't Permissible In The World Of Campaign Opposition Research


As Paul Manafort's trial plays out in a courtroom in Alexandria, Va., Robert Mueller and his team continue their investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. One thing investigators are believed to be looking at - a meeting that took place between Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner with Russian agents at Trump Tower in June 2016. That meeting is back in the headlines thanks to something President Trump tweeted. He said that meeting was, quote, "to get information on an opponent, totally legal and done all the time in politics." So is the president right? Was that meeting legal? To talk about that, we're joined by Bob Bauer. He's a professor at New York University's School of Law and was White House counsel under President Obama. Welcome.

BOB BAUER: Thank you.

CHANG: First, can you just tell us, what does the law say about a campaign gathering or soliciting information from foreign nationals?

BAUER: The law prohibits, as a baseline point, foreign nationals from attempting to influence elections with any kind of spending. And that includes spending for anything of value to a campaign. It also prohibits campaigns from aiding them in the effort to influence an election or soliciting that support.

CHANG: It seems like a lot in this law, then, hinges on the definition of the words of value. What have courts or the Federal Election Commission said about what constitutes something of value?

BAUER: It's a very broad term. It's exactly what it's intended to be. It means anything of value to the campaign that the campaign deems important that it might otherwise have to spend resources itself to acquire.

CHANG: Give me some examples. Besides cash, what might be of value to a campaign?

BAUER: Assume, for example, that an individual provides a fleet of cars to a campaign or hooks up phone lines and provides phone equipment to a campaign. Any expenditures that benefit the campaign - and that would include, by the way, expenditures a foreign national makes, say, to assemble a special research portfolio that would be useful to the campaign - all of those constitute things of value.

CHANG: OK, but what if the value is debatable? And I'm asking that in the context of this June 2016 meeting. What if any information that was procured about the other side wasn't that useful?

BAUER: It's certainly conceivable that in that meeting what the Russians originally had to offer wasn't interesting, but the Americans made it very clear that if they had something better than that, they'd be open to that, right? So that would constitute a solicitation.

CHANG: Because solicitation is the operative word there. Even if you didn't get something of value, you tried to get something of value. You solicited for something of value. That would run afoul of this law.

BAUER: Yes, and you would have to take a look at also not only what was solicited at that meeting, but then, of course, there's this whole question of a course of conduct over time - various points of contact between the Trump campaign and the Russians that indicated an ongoing openness on the part of the Trump campaign to have whatever support the Russians could provide, so maybe solicitation wouldn't only be an issue for that one meeting, but over the course of these multiple contacts that took place over time, beginning I think even as early as April of 2016.

CHANG: OK. So based on what we know, who might be facing legal jeopardy based on this particular law?

BAUER: Well, taking the Trump campaign as a whole, you have potential liability for the Trump presidential campaign as an entity. Then you have senior campaign officials, and then keep in mind that the president's former lawyer and friend Michael Cohen is apparently prepared to testify that the president knew of and consented to this meeting with the Russians. So the president is personally exposed in the event that that's what the facts show.

CHANG: Bob Bauer is a professor at New York University School of Law. Thank you very much.

BAUER: It's a pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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