Donald Trump Jr.’s tweets on Tuesday morning may have been a neatly-wrapped gift for federal prosecutors investigating members of the president’s inner circle.
Some legal experts say that the bombshell email exchange that the president’s eldest son published Monday could intensify the legal jeopardy not only for Trump Jr., but also for Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor.
In the exchange, which Trump Jr. tweeted to head off an impending New York Times report, he wrote that he would “love it” if a music promoter, Rob Goldstone, could connect him with information from the Russian government that could prove damaging to Hillary Clinton.
He also forwarded the exchange to Kushner, and to his father’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, with the subject line, “FW: Russia - Clinton - private and confidential.”
The emails raise glaring questions about Trump Jr.’s willingness to accept campaign help from individuals connected to the Russian government.
But they could also implicate Kushner, who received the entire email chain and attended the meeting, even though he did not organize it.
“What did [Kushner] know?” asked Miriam Baer, a former federal prosecutor who is now a professor at Brooklyn Law School. “He knows he’s going to a meeting about Russia and Clinton at Trump Tower … And [the email] implies…this is something they had previously talked about.”
Baer said that the email at the start of the chain — in which Goldstone offered Russian government information on Clinton — is “very concerning.”
But she noted that defense lawyers often claim that their clients did not read back to the beginning of an email chain on which they were later cc’d, and Kushner could claim he never saw the most damaging information about Russia being the source of the anti-Clinton information.
It appears that Manafort is already laying the groundwork for that defense. Politico reported that a source close to Manafort said he hadn’t read back through the whole chain.
Those questions could be answered with more documents. “Should this ever result in a later prosecution of anybody, it seems doubtful that this would be the only email we’re going to see,” Baer said.
It’s not from clear whether any of the senior Trump officials connected to the meeting could face criminal charges, and what they could be charged with.
One theory, currently popular in legal circles, is that the campaign may have broken the federal law that bars campaigns from accepting or soliciting support from foreigners. Bob Bauer, a professor at the New York University School of Law, has built the argument in recent weeks in a series of posts on the website Just Security.
“The serious issue raised by the meeting exposes the campaign as an organization to criminal legal jeopardy,” Bauer wrote after Trump Jr. tweeted the emails. “Any illegal ‘solicitation’ of support from Russia is also the campaign’s illegal solicitation.”
Bauer’s argument rests on an interpretation of the federal statute that would consider the documents promised by Goldstone as things of value on par with monetary donations.
It’s an interpretation that some legal experts dispute.
“What congress meant [in passing that law] was to stop monetary contributions” from foreigners, said Susan Klein, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law who is also a former federal prosecutor. “I can’t believe that will apply to information that somehow would be quashing any kind of information about candidates” from foreign sources.
The emails could also threaten Goldstone, the Jewish impresario who has appeared as an unlikely key player in this latest round of the Trump saga, if prosecutors were to build a broader conspiracy case.
“If I were [his] defense attorney, I would be spending a lot of time with him right now,” Baer said.
The latest revelations may also wind up threatening President Trump himself.
The future president promised days before the scheduled meeting with Goldstone’s connection that he would soon have new damaging information on Clinton. That suggests the possibility that Donald Trump had been told about the upcoming meeting, even though his spokespeople have denied it.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.