There is a temptation for President Donald Trump’s supporters to approach Monday’s disclosures from Robert Mueller, the special counsel looking into Russian involvement in the 2016 election, with the shrug of whataboutery.
Sure, Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort has been charged with money-laundering and other dirty dealings. But most of the details have been known for a while. And his indictment mentions no actual crimes committed on behalf of the Trump campaign.
What about the Hillary Clinton campaign?
On Monday, Tony Podesta, the brother of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, stepped down from his powerful Washington lobbying shop because he, like Manafort, worked for a shady nonprofit group to lobby the U.S. on behalf of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
What’s more, the Washington Post reported last week that a Clinton campaign lawyer, Marc Elias, paid the opposition research firm Fusion GPS to dig up dirt on Trump. Some of that information came from Russian officials speaking to a former British spy, Christopher Steele.
So, Trump supporters would seem justified in asking, why is it permissible for Russians to help Democrats and not permissible for Russians to help Republicans?
There are two answers here. The first is obvious. The Russians tried to sow chaos in the election by trolling both the left and the right on social media with fake news. But when Russian hackers distributed stolen emails on the internet, they came from only one party: the Democrats. If Mueller finds evidence that this was coordinated with Trump or his associates, it would be like finding out G. Gordon Liddy subcontracted the Watergate burglary to the KGB.
The other answer is more subtle. Adav Noti, who served as a Federal Election Commission lawyer between 2007 and 2017, told me that all of this goes back to the ban on contributions and donations from foreign governments or foreign nationals in federal elections. The law has been on the books since the 1970s, and he said it applies to promises of deleted emails and other kinds of opposition research.
“There is a real meaningful distinction,” said Noti, who is now senior director of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan group that monitors election law. “The Clinton campaign, based on what has been reported, paid for opposition research, which included paying people to dig up dirt in foreign countries.” Unsavory? Perhaps. But not illegal.
Compare that to what we know about George Papadopoulos, a low-level Trump campaign foreign-policy adviser, who has pled guilty to lying to the FBI. The plea agreement, released Monday by Mueller, says Papadopoulos emailed a Russian professor and another Russian contact who promised to turn over Clinton’s emails free of charge.
Or consider the meeting in the summer of 2016 between Donald Trump Jr. and Russian nationals who reportedly offered to hand over dirt on Clinton. Noti said that if the Trump officials solicited the information, “the act itself was unlawful.”
Noti cannot be dismissed as a partisan. Last week, his law center filed a formal complaint with the FEC against the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee for filing misleading federal reports that hid the contract with Fusion GPS. “They routed the money through their legal counsel so that no payment showed up on their federal disclosures,” Noti said. “The activity was legal, but they misreported it.”
It’s important to note that so far, in both the case of Trump Jr. and Papadopoulos, it appears the information promised was never delivered. Eventually, after initial denials, the younger Trump acknowledged he had a meeting with a Kremlin-connected Russian attorney, Natalia Veselnitskaya, but said all she wanted to discuss were human-rights sanctions against Russian senior officials implicated in the death of an anticorruption attorney. The Justice Department document signed by Papadopoulos says on page 9 that a separate, off-the-record meeting with the Russians regarding information on Clinton never took place.
At the same time, we know that Steele, the former British spy, did get lots of juicy allegations about Trump from several high-level Russian government officials when he was working on a contract paid for by the Clinton campaign. That dossier did not sway the election, but it did poison the political environment for Trump during the presidential transition and during his first months in office. It dominated news coverage and prompted, in part, the launch of congressional inquiries into his election.
It’s quite possible that Mueller has more information that shows Russians illegally provided the Trump campaign with dirt or coordinated with it the release of the stolen Democratic emails. But so far, nothing like that has surfaced.
What has surfaced is that the Democrats in this instance played it smarter than Trump’s associates. The Clinton campaign had the good sense to pay a contractor for Russian info besmirching the opponent (even if they do eventually get in trouble for failing to disclose it). Trump Jr. and Papadopoulos, on the other hand, may have violated the law by agreeing to receive Russian dirt that was never delivered.
The sad irony is that various Russians were willing to share opposition research directly and indirectly with both campaigns. In this case, Team Clinton was just smoother than Team Trump. Nonetheless Trump still won. As the late Tom Petty sang: Even the losers get lucky sometimes.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.