WASHINGTON — Recent revelations that money from Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee helped pay for a dossier alleging ties between Donald Trump and Russia have drawn comparisons to a meeting that Trump campaign officials had at Trump Tower last year with Russians promising “dirt” on Clinton.
The Trump Tower meeting has become just one focal point in a sweeping investigation by three congressional committees and special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign and possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.
But President Trump and some of his allies have pointed to the Democrats’ funding of the dossier to allege that it is the “real” Russian collusion scandal because it included some information from Russian sources.
Are the two actions really comparable? Here’s a look:
1. What exactly did the Clinton campaign do in regard to the dossier?
According to a story first reported by The Washington Post last month, lawyers representing the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee hired Fusion GPS to conduct opposition research on Donald Trump last year.
Fusion GPS then hired Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer, to act as a private investigator. Steele compiled an as-yet unverified dossier on Trump’s alleged connections to Russia and possible coordination between his campaign and the Russian government.
Although the research by Fusion GPS was originally funded by Republicans, the Democrats began paying for it after Trump clinched the GOP nomination for president, and Steele was not retained until the Democrats were involved. The Clinton campaign and the DNC retained Fusion GPS from April through October 2016, according to The Post.
The dossier cites information Steele supposedly obtained from “a senior Russian Foreign Ministry figure and a former top level Russian intelligence officer still active inside the Kremlin.”
2. What exactly did the Trump campaign do at that meeting at Trump Tower?
Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort met on June 9, 2016, at Trump Tower with Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya and several other Russians. Trump Jr. released email correspondence in July of this year showing that he took the meeting after he was promised it would yield dirt on Clinton.
“If it’s what you say I love it,” Trump Jr. wrote to an intermediary eager to set up the meeting, which promised information that would “incriminate” Clinton.
Trump Jr. told Senate investigators in September that he was skeptical about the meeting but decided to go in case it revealed information concerning Clinton’s “fitness” to be president.
“To the extent they had information concerning the fitness, character or qualifications of a presidential candidate, I believed that I should at least hear them out,” he told investigators for the Senate Judiciary Committee in a statement.
3. Are both the dossier and the Trump Tower meeting under investigation?
Yes. Congressional investigators probing Russian interference in last year’s election have interviewed Trump Jr., Kushner, and Manafort about the Trump Tower meeting. They also have met with executives of Fusion GPS.
Special counsel Robert Mueller, who is conducting a separate criminal investigation, has also met with Steele to talk to him about the contents of the dossier he wrote, according to news reports.
However, the Trump campaign is being investigated for actions far beyond just the Trump Tower meeting.
On Oct. 30, unsealed court records revealed that Mueller’s investigation had produced its first criminal charges and its first guilty plea.
Ex-Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to a charge that he lied to FBI agents about his contacts with a professor he believed “had substantial connections to Russian government officials” during the campaign. The professor offered him thousands of emails that were supposed to give the Trump campaign “dirt” on Clinton.
A grand jury also indicted Manafort and his associate Rick Gates on charges that they secretly worked on behalf of pro-Russian factions in Ukraine, then laundered millions of dollars in profits through foreign bank accounts. Prosecutors charged that the men tried to cover up their work even while they held senior roles in Trump’s campaign. Both men have pleaded not guilty to the charges.
4. Were both campaigns after “dirt” on their opponents?
Yes. Both campaigns have said they were doing “opposition research,” which involves collecting background information on a political opponent that could potentially discredit or weaken them.
Opposition research is a common tool used by candidates of both parties in local, state and national campaigns. It was not unique to the 2016 presidential race. But securing such research directly from a foreign government could be illegal.
Trump Jr. has said that he and Kushner and Manafort never got any information about Clinton from the Russians at the Trump Tower meeting, which he described as “a bust” that only lasted about 15 minutes.
In an interview Wednesday on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Clinton downplayed the impact of the dossier, saying it didn’t come out until after the election. It was published by BuzzFeed in January, shortly before Trump’s inauguration.
5. So is there any real difference in what the two campaigns did?
Yes, experts say there are significant legal differences.
“One side is a private investigator under contract and the other involves alleged collaboration with a hostile government seeking to meddle in the U.S. election,” said Andrew Wright, an associate professor at Savannah Law School in Georgia and former staff director of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
The Trump campaign’s actions could put it at odds with federal election law, Wright said.
“Campaign finance laws prohibit soliciting or receiving a ‘thing of value’ from a foreign entity because that would constitute an illegal campaign contribution,” he said. “Information could amount to an illegal in-kind contribution from a foreign government. Russia repeatedly dangled information in order to get its hooks into the Trump campaign.”
In contrast, Wright said, “Fusion GPS was paid for opposition research services at arms-length. As such, it was not a campaign contribution but rather contracted services.”
The fact that Steele ended up talking to a couple of Russian sources to compile his dossier doesn’t change that, experts said.
Charles Tiefer, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and the special deputy chief counsel for the House Iran-Contra Committee’s investigation of the Reagan administration, said the actions by the two campaigns “could not be more different.”
“Steele was British, but there is no reason to believe Britain … was meddling in the election,” Tiefer said. “In contrast, the Russian effort to interfere in the U.S. election connected in a number of ways with (Russian President Vladimir) Putin and his network. The Russian effort was very active on many election fronts, such as hacking, publicizing hacked materials, placing ads in social media with undisclosed identities, and seeking to work directly with the Trump campaign.”
6. How do the two campaigns characterize each other’s actions?
In her interview on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Clinton said there was a major difference between her campaign paying for legal opposition research and Trump’s team possibly colluding with Russia to influence the U.S. election.
“I think most serious people understand that,” Clinton said.
Trump has called the Democrats’ funding of the dossier “a sad commentary on politics in this country.”
“I think it’s very sad what they’ve done with this fake dossier,” Trump told reporters on Oct. 25. “It was made up, and I understand they paid a tremendous amount of money, and Hillary Clinton always denied it. The Democrats always denied it, and now only because it’s going to come out in a court case, they said, yes, they did it. They admitted it, and they’re embarrassed by it, but I think it’s a disgrace.”