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As events of the Trump tower meeting unfold, President Trump has repeatedly cast the meeting in the light of a typical attempt at opposition research. Previously he has said:

"I think from a practical standpoint, most people would have taken that meeting. It's called opposition research, or even research into your opponent"

And just recently:

"This was a meeting to get information on an opponent, totally legal and done all the time in politics"

Is there merit behind this claim? If so, what arguments support this equivalency? If not, what differences are there which separate them?

(NOTE: Many arguments I've heard attacking the Trump tower meeting state the difference is the cooperation with a foreign agent. However, this is often met by comparing the meeting with the Steele dossier. The consensus seems to be that the former is questionable, while the latter is not, but I don't know why. An answer which specifically addresses this comparison would be appreciated, but if they differ too much I can ask a similar separate question on the dossier.)

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    This is not an answer but it greatly depends on the intentions of the participants. Collusion is a secret agreement between parties with the objective of gaining unlawful advantage. In this particular case it would be considered collusion if the Trump campaign knew they were being approached by a foreign agent (i.e. Russia) for the possibility of obtaining advantages that would be illegal for they themselves to obtain. The major diplomatic issue here is the election interference (by Russia) and the role that the now President (and team) had in it. – armatita Aug 7 '18 at 8:15
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    @SoylentGray Would you mind making this into a sourced answer? – Lord Farquaad Aug 7 '18 at 15:31
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    @SoylentGray Well then would you mind sourcing that? You're the first I've seen making these claims. Without any support, they're still unsubstantiated to me. – Lord Farquaad Aug 7 '18 at 15:39
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    @SoylentGray Clearly you and I read that article very differently, that's not at all what it says. – BradC Aug 7 '18 at 16:02
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    @LordFarquaad He's referring to the fact that the Russian lawyer involved in the meeting was also involved in a legal case (in an entirely unrelated matter) that Fusion GPS was also hired to assist with. They didn't even work together, it's nothing; its a smokescreen. – BradC Aug 7 '18 at 16:11
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Yes, the Trump Tower meeting is vastly different than normal opposition research.

1. The meeting might be a direct violation of campaign finance law

Not everyone agrees, but there is an argument to be made that this was an offer from a foreign entity to contribute "something of value", which could violate US campaign finance law:

“The Trump campaign invited them to come. It was a proposition that was offered, and it was accepted,” Bauer said, referring to the exchange of messages between Trump Jr. and music publicist Rob Goldstone that set up the meeting itself — an email exchange that indicated the offer was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

“The law prohibits Americans from soliciting foreign nationals’ assistance,” he added. “The solicitation provision is very broad. You don’t have to specifically say, ‘I really would like you to do X’; you could indicate, since they’ve already said they want to help you out, that you’re open for business. That you actually want their support.”

In contrast, a campaign hiring a firm to research Trump's overseas business interests isn't a violation:

“Paying a foreign national fair market value for opposition research is generally not illegal,” Noble wrote. “It is considered a commercial transaction, which is not a contribution.” Clinton’s campaign had paid Fusion GPS directly; it’s a campaign expenditure, not a campaign contribution. Since it’s not a contribution, the FEC allows it.

2. The material (supposedly) discussed was obtained via illegal hacking

12 Russian hackers have been indicted for hacking the DNC and the Clinton campaign.

If (as is generally believed) that this hacked material is the "dirt" on Clinton that was offered by the Russians during this meeting, and if Mueller has evidence (or testimony) that members of the Trump campaign were aware of or cooperating with the Russians "in furtherance of" these crimes, then it is possible that Trump campaign officials could face federal conspiracy charges. From the same article as above:

Further, and importantly, the law prohibits any American from aiding any of the above efforts. We noted last week that “collusion” can be another word for “conspiracy,” and that those aiding a Russian effort to provide illegal assistance or soliciting that assistance could be held criminally liable.

Your question asks whether Trump is right that "most people would have taken that meeting", if getting oppo research from anywhere and everywhere possible is "done all the time in politics". I'd suggest the answer is no: in September 2000, Gore's campaign received an anonymous package containing info about Bush's debate prep. Their immediate reaction was to call the FBI.

There is no allegation that anything in the "Steele Dossier" was obtained illegally.

3. The secrecy and lies about this meeting indicate they knew it was wrong.

If this was "no big deal", why has everyone involved lied about it for years?

If this was "no big deal", why would Trump Jr. lie to Congress under oath about whether his father knew about the meeting?

And when portions of the story did come out, why did their story continue to change a dozen times or more?

The obvious answer (in my opinion), is simply that they knew it was wrong, and knew if it got out that it would kill their chance to get elected.

Legal analysts describe this as a "consciousness of guilt", others even suggest this is "direct evidence of crimes".

(In my opinion, this record of obfuscation means we should continue to be highly skeptical of the Trump campaign's current claims about the meeting: that it came to nothing, that there was no agreement, that Trump wasn't aware of it, etc.)

In contrast, it wouldn't strike anyone as unusual for a campaign to hire a firm well known for performing opposition research.

4. This meeting wasn't about "adoptions", it was about using adoptions as leverage for dropping sanctions.

A 2012 US Law called the "Magnitsky Act" froze money in the US that belonged to Russians implicated in human rights abuses, including the 2009 murder of anti-corruption activist Sergei Magnitsky. In retaliation, Russia blocked international adoptions of Russian orphans:

Since that time, Russia’s efforts to reverse the Magnitsky Act and lift other sanctions, like those that the United States imposed after Russia’s invasion of Crimea, have been a constant through-line of its foreign policy. They remain a critical priority for Mr. Putin, who sees the sanctions as one part of a broader effort by Western governments to undermine his presidency.

Ms. Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer who attended the Trump Tower meeting, has claimed in interviews that Donald Trump Jr. agreed to reconsider these sanctions if Trump is elected.

Proof of a "quid pro quo" along these lines would be (to put it mildly) a pretty big deal.

5. The country involved is a (past and current) adversary of the US.

It is one thing to believe that we can work, carefully and cautiously, towards a gradually improved relationship with Russia.

It's a different thing altogether to knowingly cooperate with a hostile foreign power currently involved in an active campaign to disrupt our election.

  • +1 I think this is a good answer, especially points 1, 3 and 5. If you want to address DrunkCynics complaint, you might want to change "was obtained illegally" to "may have been obtained illegally" or "is suspected of [...]", as that part isn't about the legality of the meeting, but how the info that was to be given was obtained; as there is still a lot of doubt about what that material may have been, or what Trump Jr may have thought the material might be, it might be a good idea to phrase that point a bit more carefully. – tim Aug 7 '18 at 19:36
  • I'm also not sure how relevant the 2000 election issue is (it might be interesting as an fyi link, but the blockquote seems to dilute the important parts of the answer). If you have the time, you might also want to add sources for point 3 (though that issue might also make for a good separate question) – tim Aug 7 '18 at 19:38
  • @tim Significant edits were made based on your suggestions, let me know what you think. – BradC Aug 8 '18 at 16:39
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In that politicians typically don't willingly agree to accept favors from foreign governments as opposition research (as that is illegal), yes.

The primary difference between a meeting like that, and the Steele Dossier is whether there was quid pro quo implied. The former was an agent of a foreign government offering "something of value" to help influence a US election. The latter was private research hired and (this is key) paid for by the campaign. While quid pro quo isn't the main legal concern (being gifted something "of value" is) it adds to the overall concerns of a transaction like that.

Another major difference would be the particular countries involved. The US has not had the same relationship with Russia as they've had with Britain.

And of course, the main difference now is that Trump is president. And Hillary is not.

The Trump family's intent prior to the meeting was established from an e-mail sent from Rob Goldstone to Trump Jr.:

The Crown prosecutor of Russia met with his father Aras this morning and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.

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    The Steele dossier relied heavily on sources close to Putin. If anything they had a more solid relationship as official agents. The crown prosecutor of Russia doesn't exist. It's a made up title. businessinsider.com/… – K Dog Aug 7 '18 at 11:34
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    @KDog you keep ignoring context. The Dossier was a 'paid, for hire, research product'. Meaning the campaign explicitly purchased research. Please read this article. It explains the differences in context fairly well: washingtonpost.com/news/politics/wp/2018/08/06/… – user1530 Aug 7 '18 at 14:39
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    @blip The only context is needed is the extent Clinton went to evade tying herself to paying Putin cronies for information. She used several cutouts, including Perkins Coie to hide the money trail. – K Dog Aug 7 '18 at 15:02
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    @KDog if that is the only context you're concerned with, then I think it's pretty clear your POV and we can just leave it at that. – user1530 Aug 7 '18 at 15:25
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    @KDog None of that is true; FBI and FISA court knew where the intel came from, and it corroborated intel they'd already gathered via independent sources. – BradC Aug 7 '18 at 17:17
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One thing, (but not necessarily the only thing), that seems curiously different from standard research is that certain participants felt it would be better to lie about their true purpose:

Trump Jr. initially told reporters that the meeting had been "primarily about adoptions". He then released a statement saying it had been a "short introductory meeting" concerning "a program about the adoption of Russian children"...

But Trump Jr. later admitted to having had no interest whatsoever in adopting Russian orphans.

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    This seems to misunderstand what Don, Jr. was saying. Prior to the meeting, the Trump people were told that the meeting was about dirt on Clinton. At the meeting though, they discussed no such dirt and instead talked about policy changes that would make it possible to adopt Russian children. So Don, Jr. took the meeting to get opposition research. The other side then decided to talk about adoptions instead. Presumably they made the claim about dirt on Clinton to get the meeting, since no one from the Trump campaign was interested in talking about how sanctions were blocking adoptions. – Brythan Aug 7 '18 at 6:54
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    @Brythan, Bait and switch schemes typically involve substituting some desired promotion with similar but inferior wares, or similar but less favorable terms. Substituting promoted scandalous dirt with quasi-charitable appeals seems highly unlikely because seekers of scandals to publicize are more motivated by Machiavellian spite than philanthropic kindness. It would be like a pimp trying to lure johns with a Salvation Army bell. – agc Aug 7 '18 at 7:29
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    Trump Jr. said no such thing. Here's his Senate testimony "And then the next thing, I start hearing about adoption and sanctions and the impact that that is having on adoption and Americans. And that is when I completely tuned out and was like, we're having a meeting about adoption. I don't get this." – K Dog Aug 7 '18 at 11:37
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    @KDog Trump Jr.'s initial statement on the meeting was “It was a short introductory meeting. I asked Jared and Paul to stop by. We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government, but it was not a campaign issue at the time and there was no follow up.” I believe this is what agc is referring to (correct me if I'm wrong). I do agree that everything in this statement is true, but I also think there's a reasonable argument that there's a lie by omission here. – Lord Farquaad Aug 7 '18 at 14:28
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    Of course he lied about it; but its also important to understand that talking about "enabling Russian adoption" is (not-so-secret) code for dropping Russian sanctions. Just search for "Magnitsky act adoptions". – BradC Aug 7 '18 at 15:24

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