Part 5—They sought information: Did Donald Trump Junior commit a crime in connection with that now-famous meeting?
Based upon what little we know, it seems to us he didn't. That said, we know very little about relevant law, and there's a good reason for that:
Why don't we know more about relevant law? It's because we read the New York Times and watch "cable news!"
Major news orgs have made little attempt to analyze that basic question, which is widely gossiped about. Any such attempt would involve information, and contemporary journalistic culture is highly "information averse."
It seems to us that Donald Trump Junior probably didn't commit a crime. Nor are we willing to be shocked, shocked by the fact that he sought information about his father's opponent.
It seems to us that he didn't commit a crime. Below, we'll visit Rohrschach Test 30121 to tell you why we say that.
First, though, let's answer a different question. Should the behavior of Donald Trump Junior be forbidden by U. S. law?
To us, it isn't clear that the answer is yes even here. In part, that's because we're at least dimly aware of what "information" is.
Let's start today with our basic question: Did Junior commit a crime? When journalists pretend to discuss that question, they usually seem to refer to "52 U.S. Code 30121," the provision of federal law to which Brian Williams explicitly referred Monday night.
Yesterday, we did the forbidden—we actually showed you the actual text of that actual statute. Admit it—you'd never seen that language before.
Our "journalists" rarely engage in such conduct. This is the relevant text:
52 U.S. Code § 30121—Contributions and donations by foreign nationalsAs this key inkblot continues, it defines the term "foreign national." Basically, the term seems to include citizens of foreign countries; governments of foreign countries; and foreign political parties. No such critters can make the types of "contributions and donations" described in 30121.
(a) PROHIBITION It shall be unlawful for—
(1) a foreign national, directly or indirectly, to make—
(A) a contribution or donation of money or other thing of value, or to make an express or implied promise to make a contribution or donation, in connection with a Federal, State, or local election;
(B) a contribution or donation to a committee of a political party; or
(C) an expenditure, independent expenditure, or disbursement for an electioneering communication (within the meaning of section 30104(f)(3) of this title); or
(2) a person to solicit, accept, or receive a contribution or donation described in subparagraph (A) or (B) of paragraph (1) from a foreign national.
(Please note: These provisions of federal law draw no distinction between hostile and friendly foreign governments. When cable stars insert colorful language about hostile powers into their feigned explanations, they're scripting the thrilling TV show, Beverly Hills 30121. They do this to excite tribal viewers.)
When Trump Junior conducted that meeting, he was meeting with a "foreign national"—the Russkie lawyer. Did she make or offer a "contribution or donation" under terms of that federal law?
On its face, Inkblot 30121 expressly forbade the Russkie lawyer from handing Trump Junior a big sack of cash—but no one suggests that she did that. When cable stars tell you that Trump Junior broke the law, that isn't what they're suggesting.
When cable stars make that claim, they're saying or suggesting that information—in this case, typically referred to as "dirt"—is in fact a "thing of value" under terms of Inkblot 30121. This account of the unquoted federal law advances our tribal pleasure. For this reason, the unquoted 30121 is constantly interpreted like that.
How childish can the paraphrasing get? It gets so bad that the New York Times has twice—two times!—published this pitiful claim:
"It is illegal for a campaign to accept help from a foreign individual or government."It's illegal to accept "help" from a foreign individual! That version of 52 U.S. Code 30121 is written on second-grade level. In such ways, our journalists construct easy-readers.
The Times created a silly paraphrase of relevant federal law. They quote no language; they link to no text. But by and large, the Times' credulous readers will swallow this childish account.
Does 52 U.S. Code 30121 say that a campaign can't accept information from a foreign individual or from a foreign government? On its face, no, it doesn't say that—and in at least one basic way, that seems to be good for our tribe.
Christopher Steele is a foreign individual! So, presumably, were his Russian sources. If it's against the law to accept help from a foreign individual, that could almost seem to mean that principals of the Clinton campaign would be on their way "to the clink," to borrow Gail Collins' language.
"But but but," the tribe will sputter. "But that's totally different!"
Within the past week, we've finally seen a first attempt to explain why the Clinton campaign was in the right in this enterprise, while the Trump campaign was in the wrong. Watching the stars of cable news, you'll never have your time wasted in this manner. Cable exists to tell you stories, full stop—to tell you the stories you like.
The stars of cable don't waste our time with information or analysis. They mug and clown and let us enjoy the moments we get to share with our very best "cable news" friends.
As you probably know, the anti-Trump story-line goes like this. The information the Russkie lawyer conveyed, or tried to convey, was a "thing of value" under terms of 30121.
In theory, it cost someone money to assemble the information. The most aggressive cable apes will even note that it cost money for the Russkie lawyer to fly to New York!
That means that she was conveying "a thing of value," these gods of narrative cry. At the Times, they'll dumb it down to the point where she was supplying "help."
For ourselves, we'll only say this:
On its face, we don't think the inkblot in question is talking about information. It clearly forbids a foreign national from donating money to a campaign. Under the term "thing of value," it would presumably forbid a foreign national from donating a brand new 767 for a candidate's use. Or a big fleet of cars and vans!
Does it also mean that a foreign national can't telephone a candidate and "donate" information? It starts to take a bit of a stretch to believe that's what 30121 forbids—and under basic principles of fairness, you aren't supposed to go around stretching laws just so you can find a way to throw Certain People in jail:
"The rule of lenity (also called the rule of strict construction) is a principle of criminal statutory interpretation that requires a court to apply any unclear or ambiguous law in the manner most favorable to the defendant. It has a long history in the law..."Does 30121 really mean that a Canadian citizen can't telephone a candidate with accurate information about his or her opponent? Is that what that federal law says?
We're going to call that a bit of a stretch. That said, should new laws be passed to make some such prohibition explicit?
Very possibly, yes! But even there, we're running right into our failing culture's curious "information aversion."
Imagine the shoe on the other foot. Imagine that someone "with ties to" the Canadian government telephoned the Clinton campaign with accurate information about some act of vast misconduct by Candidate Donald J. Trump. Under terms of 30121, does anyone think that the Clinton campaign would have to slam down the phone, pretending they hadn't heard?
(If the Russkie lawyer had written an op-ed column, would we have been required to ignore what she said? If she had rented the National Press Club to give a speech, would we have had to hold our hands over our ears, going "la la la la la la la" until she stopped making her claims? This is the road we're starting down when we start banning information—though we'll grant you, information barely exists within our discourse as it is.)
Alas! Our modern journalistic discourse largely turns on gossip and narrative. With something approaching ubiquity, our discourse very rarely turns on information and facts. This is true in major policy areas. It's also true when the gossiping apes of the corporate press pretend to discuss our campaigns.
("Al Gore said he invented the Internet" was an invented "group fiction." People are dead all over the world because our mainstream corporate gossips adopted the claim as one of their favorites and pimped it about for two years.)
Presumably, you don't want governments—Canadian or Russian—conducting "opposition research" on American political candidates. The Congress might want to pass laws forbidding receipt of such information from such sources.
Even there, we're putting ourselves in the slightly odd position of rejecting information. In terms of foreign citizens, some wealthy Canadian can't give Candidate X a jet. But why shouldn't he be able to give him or her an accurate fact?
In the case of the famous meeting, a British music promoter called Trump Junior and said he had a Russkie lawyer with some negative information about Hillary Clinton. (For the record, the news orgs which are outraged about this had been inventing and peddling "dirt" about Clinton for twenty-four years at that point.)
According to the standard account of what occurred at that meeting, the negative information turned out to be a dud within the American context. (Putin rattled the same useless claims in the public session in Helsinki.)
According to the standard account, the information was judged to be useless. But is that sort of thing what Congress meant when it passed 30121? When Congress forbade a foreign national from making "a contribution or donation of a thing of value," did it mean that a foreign citizen couldn't "donate information" or "donate some accurate fact?"
That strikes us as a serious stretch, but our tribe is happy to go there. Our haplessness over the past thirty years has left us in a very bad place. Today, we're willing to avoid serious analysis when our corporate TV stars fill us with dreams about throwing The Others in jail.
What federal law did Trump Junior break? Even after all this time, do we really know? Do we have any idea? What does this say about the quality of our own tribal discourse?
We're lazy and useless and nobody likes us. These basic facts remain unknown Over Here.
Steele yes, Russkie lawyer no: We agree! It was perfectly OK for the Clinton campaign to seek information from Christopher Steele and from his Russkie sources.
It still isn't clear if the claims in Steele's dossier were accurate. But there was nothing wrong with soliciting and receiving this alleged information.
Under terms of American law, what makes receipt of Steele's information OK, while receipt of the Russkie lawyer's information constitutes the type of crime we yammer about every night? According to this recent analysis by the Washington Post's Philip Bump, Steele's information was OK because he was paid to compile it!
This almost seems to mean that Trump Tower meeting would have been OK if they'd simply paid the Russkie lawyer. Is that what 30121 says or means? Can anyone really believe that?
Bump quotes only two legal experts; each agrees with the tribal position. Bob Bauer is a long-time Democratic Party insider. Note the way he searches about for ways to charge the Trump Tower participants, rather than quoting any clear, explicit legal prohibitions.
"Lock her up," Trump's tinpot said. Our own utterly hapless tribe is now drawn in the same direction.
"People, no fair," we ardently cry. They sought information!