Newsletter: Essential Politics: The president’s son calls it opposition research. But it might have serious legal implications

Essential Politics

It took six months for the word “nothing burger” to enter the political lexicon in a big way. What’s not clear, however, is if the latest dust-up over Donald Trump Jr.’s contacts with Russia actually is one.

I’m Christina Bellantoni. Welcome to the Wednesday edition of Essential Politics. John Myers is away.

Trump Jr. released a series of emails ahead of their publication by the New York Times. The messages from Rob Goldstone, a music promoter with business dealings in Russia who is a friend of Trump Jr.’s, led within days to a meeting at Trump Tower with Trump Jr. and two other high-level campaign officials, Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law and advisor, and Paul Manafort, who was the campaign chairman at the time.

Late Tuesday, President Trump’s son described his interactions with people who suggested they had dirt on Hillary Clinton in the heat of the 2016 campaign as “opposition research.”


Speaking with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, Trump Jr. added that the meeting itself was “a nothing” and “just a wasted 20 minutes.” Sam Nunberg, a former Trump aide, dismissed the entire thing as a “nothing burger.”

David Savage gets right at why this is such a big deal in a piece looking at the legal implications of what Trump Jr.’s emails reveal.

Federal law makes it a crime for any person to “solicit, accept or receive” a foreign gift or “anything of value” from a foreign person for a U.S. political campaign or “for the purpose of influencing any election for federal office,” he writes. This includes an “express or implied promise” to give something of value. So in that sense it may not matter whether the thing of value was ever actually provided.

Some scoffed at the idea the emails revealed any such promise. Still, Common Cause filed a complaint Monday with the Federal Election Commission and Special Counsel Robert Mueller alleging the recent revelations show the Trump campaign had violated the law by “soliciting a contribution from a foreign national.” Election law violations are usually pursued as civil matters by the FEC that can lead to fines and penalties, but the Justice Department sometimes prosecutes knowing and willful violations as crimes.

Congressional Republicans were trying to avoid talking about the news, but Rep. Adam Schiff, the Burbank Democrat who is the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, said the panel wants to hear from “everyone connected” to the June 2016 meeting in question.

Read the emails, and see our team’s annotation of the exchanges. We’ll be tracking the latest on Essential Washington.


Here in California, after weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiations, Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic leaders released their proposal to extend the life of the state’s cap and trade system late on Monday evening, with the aim for a floor vote on Thursday. As Melanie Mason reports, the two-bill package includes changes to how the state’s landmark climate change program operates and a new effort to tackle air pollution in communities through increased monitoring and stiffer penalties.

The proposal was greeted with mixed reactions on Tuesday, with divisions among environmentalists over whether the proposal goes far enough to reach California’s ambitious climate goals.

Watch our Essential Politics news feed for developments and the vote this week.


Rep. Jimmy Gomez was sworn in as Los Angeles’ newest congressman Tuesday, saying in brief remarks afterward his approach to policy and politics is driven by personal and community experience.

Gomez sat down with Sarah Wire this week to talk about the transition from Sacramento to Washington and what kind of training he got for his new job.


Proponents of an initiative to repeal gas tax increases in California plan to sue over the state-drafted title and summary for the ballot measure, which they say is misleading and negative.The state attorney general’s office on Monday released the description — language that must appear on petitions circulated by people who want to overturn the $52-billion tax hike for transportation projects.

Patrick McGreevy reports that GOP Assemblyman Travis Allen, who is running for governor, told him, “We will wait to win in court and then we will be gathering signatures up and down the state.”


A wealthy young Silicon Valley venture capitalist unveiled a plan to recruit candidates to run for office — possibly challenging Democratic incumbents — because he believes California’s governance is fundamentally flawed.

Many thought Sam Altman, 32, was eyeing a run for governor, but he told Seema Mehta that he is focused on providing technology and seed funding for a slate of candidates who share a set of policy priorities, such as lowering the cost of housing, creating single-payer healthcare, increasing clean energy use, improving education, reforming taxes, and rebuilding infrastructure.


-- Noam Levey examines the burning question in Washington: Is there a smaller fix for the Affordable Care Act? In case you missed it, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced he will delay the August recess to deal with healthcare and other priorities for the GOP.

-- California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra backed a study on police shootings across the state, but only after rejecting a measure that would have increased his authority to criminally investigate such cases.

-- A measure that would have made it harder to punish California police officers accused of lying is done for the year.

-- San Diego real estate investor Paul Kerr is the latest Democrat to announce a challenge to Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), who’s a top target for Democrats next fall.

-- Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron drew their battle lines over Olympic bids Tuesday, as the U.S. president prepares to head to France to celebrate Bastille Day.

-- A state Senate bill to change California’s bail system advanced — with concerns over costs.

-- A new state law aims to limit where California judges place violent sex offenders out on conditional release.

-- The House of Representatives voted unanimously Tuesday to honor one of the creators of the “Bakersfield sound,” Merle Haggard, by renaming a post office in his hometown.

-- The California Assembly deadlocked Monday over a bill that would allow judges to not impose sentence enhancements of 10 or more years in cases where firearms were used in committing a felony. With some Democrats joining a Republican bloc in opposition, the vote was 32-32. The measure could come up on another day if the author can muster more votes.

-- In the 2018 race for California lieutenant governor, Democrats Asif Mahmood and Eleni Kounalakis reporting raising $1 million for their young campaigns, Phil Willon reports. Neither has run for public office before.


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