Debate: Are the Donald Trump Jr. emails really a smoking gun?

One hot-button issue. Two opposing views. Three rounds of fiery debate. This is Actually.

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., stunned many observers when he tweeted screenshots of his email exchanges about meeting with a Russian lawyer in June 2016 to discuss potential opposition research on Hillary Clinton — a meeting first reported by the New York Times over the weekend.

In the emails, which the younger Trump eventually forwarded to his brother-in-law Jared Kushner and then-campaign manager Paul Manafort, music promoter Rob Goldstone offered to set up a meeting because, he wrote, the Russian government had offered “to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia.”

“If it’s what you say I love it,” Trump Jr. replied.

Legal experts have suggested that the emails may well be evidence of campaign finance violations, while some conservatives have defended the meeting, noting that the Clinton camp reportedly received opposition research from people connected to the Ukrainian government during the 2016 race.

Mic asked two pundits to debate in real time whether the emails released by Donald Trump Jr. are of tremendous legal and political import, or simply a liberal and media overreaction to a commonplace occurrence in electoral politics made to seem inappropriate because the Trump campaign was involved. They each get three rounds of response, each round can be no longer than 200 words and all responses have to be to the moderator in no more than 30 minutes. 

At the end of the debate, you’ll get to vote on the winner. Please, no collusion. 

Courtesy/Charlie Kirk

Charlie Kirk is the founder and executive director of Turning Point USA, a national student movement on over 1,100 college and high school campuses across the country. 

Courtesy/David Klion

David Klion is a former editor for Al Jazeera America and World Politics Review. He lives in Brooklyn, New York City, and has written for the Guardian, the New Republic, Gothamist, Alternet and other publications.

Kirk won the coin toss, which meant he leads off the debate. At the end, please vote in our poll to determine who made the better arguments (which, yes, were conducted over email).

Round 1 — Opening arguments

Charlie Kirk: According to all of the evidence provided on this incident and email chain, there is absolutely nothing improper about Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya. Don Jr. took the meeting under the impression that he was going to receive opposition research about Hillary Clinton and some of her shady dealings as secretary of state.

The only reason this story has blown up the last three days is because, for nine months, there has been a narrative created that “Russia got Trump elected” — which is pure nonsense. If you were to delete “Russia” from the equation and report that someone from Japan, the U.K. or Canada offered help, this story would not have been subject to as much reporting. 

For everyone upset about this meeting that Don Jr. took, I would like to ask: Were you equally outraged or vocal when Hillary Clinton took assistance from Ukraine? The Ukrainian government has openly admitted they colluded unsuccessfully in the 2016 election. But Hillary receiving opposition research from a foreign government got little wider traction. 

Now, I hate using the defense “But Hillary did it too!” because that is actually where I have to draw a difference. Don Jr. didn’t accept any assistance as a result of this June meeting with Veselnitskaya: It resulted in nothing, and there was no follow-up. It totally and completely vaporized.

So while the emails might not be good optics from the Trump team, the question I will further pose is: If this was a smoking gun, what exactly are you accusing him of that isn’t basic campaigning or bad optics?

David Klion: The Ukraine-Clinton comparison is false equivalence and doesn’t hold legal water. The Politico piece to which you linked is complicated, but the gist is that a U.S.-born consultant named Alexandra Chalupa, who did some work for the Democratic National Committee, also had contacts in the Ukrainian embassy. She tried to raise concerns (specifically, concerns about Russian influence on the Trump campaign) with the Clinton campaign. It’s important to note that Chalupa was neither a member of the Clinton campaign nor a foreign national — much less a representative of a foreign government — and she acted on her own volition to try to convey information, as anyone in the media or consulting world might.

By contrast, as of yesterday we have the president’s son volunteering that he attempted to collude directly with Russian government officials, and attended a meeting to that end alongside the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and campaign chair Paul Manafort. For a campaign to receive any material support from a foreign government is illegal, and opposition research counts as material support. That Don Jr. claims not to have received any useful information is immaterial, akin to someone being arrested in a drug sting operation and claiming as a defense that they never actually received any drugs. The emails, supplied and verified by Don Jr. himself, make clear that his intention was to violate campaign law. Whether he was aware that this was illegal is likewise immaterial.

The unanimous verdict of the U.S. intelligence community is that Russia did interfere in the 2016 election with the intent to help the Trump campaign. While yesterday’s revelations don’t prove that the Trump campaign was fully aware of the extent of these efforts (for instance, the DNC email hacking, or attempts to probe voter registries), they do prove that the people closest to Donald Trump were willing to work directly with the Russian government in violation of campaign law.

Round 2 — Rebuttal

Charlie Kirk: Let’s compare those two examples: On one hand, you have direct evidence that DNC officials were cooperating with foreign nationals, and that their cooperation had a direct impact on the race. On the other hand you have a meeting that took place with a nongovernment official from Russia (who admittedly has close ties to Russia, but is not a government official) to discuss potential damaging information regarding the opposition candidate. Most importantly the meeting went nowhere and nothing came of it. 

The Politico article states that Ukrainian influence did indeed result in the removal of Manafort as campaign manager to Trump, and it supplied damaging information about Trump to Clinton allies. And isn’t Don Jr. a Trump ally? So how is this any different? This is what the article says directly:

Ukrainian government officials tried to help Hillary Clinton and undermine Trump by publicly questioning his fitness for office. They also disseminated documents implicating a top Trump aide in corruption and suggested they were investigating the matter, only to back away after the election. And they helped Clinton’s allies research damaging information on Trump and his advisers, a Politico investigation found. A Ukrainian-American operative who was consulting for the Democratic National Committee met with top officials in the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington in an effort to expose ties between Trump, top campaign aide Paul Manafort and Russia, according to people with direct knowledge of the situation. The Ukrainian efforts had an impact in the race, helping to force Manafort’s resignation and advancing the narrative that Trump’s campaign was deeply connected to Ukraine’s foe to the east, Russia.

Based on the definition you provided above regarding the illegality of receiving material support, we can definitively say that the Clinton campaign and allies broke campaign law by accepting material support from the Ukrainian government. The Trump campaign met with a Russian lawyer, which ended up resulting in nothing — henceforth not violating any laws. 

If foreign influence into our elections is really the primary concern, then it would be only fair to have a commission that investigates the Ukrainian government’s objectives and material support it offered during the 2016 presidential election — especially since the Politico story explicitly says that “Ukrainian government officials tried to help Hillary Clinton and undermine Trump.” 

David Klion: The issue isn’t whether a foreign government tried to release information. Any governments are free to release whatever information into the public sphere directly or via intermediaries. In any case, we aren’t debating whether either the Russian or the Ukrainian government is at fault here, we’re debating whether Don Jr. is. An actual member of the Trump campaign directly and knowingly solicited information from the Russian government, in a meeting accompanied by Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort (whose precise understanding of the exchange hasn’t yet been established but could very plausibly turn out to have been the same as Don Jr.’s).

In the email exchange tweeted by Don Jr. yesterday, he was told by his intermediary, Rob Goldstone, that he would be provided with documents that “would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father,” and that “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

Don Jr. replied: “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.” He then agreed to meet with someone he understood to be a “Russian government attorney” — “government” being the key word there. This would be the equivalent of Chelsea or Bill Clinton agreeing by email to meet with a Ukrainian government attorney offering opposition research against Trump, perhaps accompanied by Robby Mook or John Podesta.

Campaign law is tricky and damaging information tends to circulate anyway, often through layers of plausible deniability. For instance, WikiLeaks is widely understood to have published DNC emails stolen by Russian hackers that benefited the Trump campaign but, as a third party, WikiLeaks can’t be held responsible for the illegal hacks themselves and is protected by the First Amendment. And the Trump campaign can’t be directly linked to the hackers. But this is different. This is Trump’s inner circle attempting to collude directly with Russia.

Round 3 — Closing thoughts

Charlie Kirk: In short: Don Jr. didn’t solicit the material; he took a meeting that promised opposition research against Hillary. The emails — no matter how optically challenging they might be for the Trump team — do not signal any illegal activity, nor has there been any indication that there was material information exchanged or any sort of follow up.

There was, in closing, no exchange of information during the meeting, and no evidence of collusion or communication that followed up from the encounter. Instead, it was a loyal member of the Trump family attempting to learn more about opposition research that had reportedly been gathered against their political opponent.

While I agree with some of David’s well-articulated points, I would caution against making the assertion that “it was an attempt to collude with Russia.” Meeting with a Russian lawyer claiming to have information from the Russian government (which they didn’t apparently have on offer) is a lot different than direct coordination with a foreign government. 

David Klion: Whatever Veselnitskaya actually said and whatever her actual ties to the Russian government are — neither of which we know definitively, but I’m excited to learn more — the email exchange makes clear that Don Jr. believed he was meeting with a representative of the Russian government for the purpose of receiving opposition research, and that he enthusiastically agreed to do so, thereby incriminating himself. What he should have done is reported the outreach to the FBI.

I do want to clarify a point I previously made: When Don Jr. forwarded the emails to Kushner and Manafort, they became implicated in his exchange. No doubt more information will leak about what they specifically knew as well, but the emails make it appear like three inner-circle Trump advisers agreed to participate in an illegal exchange. And, while I admit I’m speculating here, it’s hard to believe none of them mentioned any of this to the candidate himself.

Of course, how important these emails turn out to be depends more on political than legal factors: The president has the constitutional authority to pardon his son for any crime, including pre-emptive blanket pardons, and if special counsel Robert Mueller tries to bring charges against Don Jr., that may well happen. The only remedy for the president abusing his power to stymie an investigation into his administration is impeachment, and that, in turn, depends on the willingness of Republicans in Congress to prioritize the rule of law over their political agenda. They’ve given no indication they’ll ever do that.

This concludes the latest installment of Actually. Please take a moment to vote for the debater who you think made the more compelling argument (unless you’re an agent of the Russian government).