Don’t Call It Treason: Trump Advisers’ Legal Jeopardy Is Deep, But Not That Deep


Jed Shugerman was quoted in a Guardian article about Donald Trump Jr’s email exchange with a Russian government official.

Whatever you do, don’t call it “treason”, warned Fordham law school professor Jed Shugerman, author of the Shugerblog commentary site.


“As a legal matter, it’s irresponsible for anyone to be calling this ‘treason’,” he said. “These terms not only have legal meaning but they also can be part of overplaying a legal or rhetorical hand.”


“Treason” is unusually narrowly defined in the constitution as aiding enemies in wartime, Shugerman said, with the framers, having just fought a revolution, working with acute awareness of the potential explosiveness of the charge.

“If these e-mails are not a hoax, they are the smoking gun showing that Donald Trump Jr illegally solicited a contribution from a foreign national – in the form of opposition research against Hillary Clinton,” said Paul S Ryan, a vice-president at Common Cause, a nonpartisan government watchdog, in a statement. “These e-mails show a clear violation of federal campaign finance law.”

Multiple legal experts share Ryan’s view. But “it’s actually quite complicated”, said Shugerman, who said we’re in “really unprecedented territory”.


Up for debate is whether “opposition research” potentially provided by Moscow to Trump Jr would qualify as a “thing of value” under campaign finance law, which explicitly prohibits “contributions, donations, expenditures and disbursements”.


“This statute’s never been applied, as far as I can tell, to any exchange of information,” Shugerman said. “And the bigger concern is that courts are going to be very cautious about applying this statute to the sharing of information because of free speech concerns.


“So even though one could make the argument that in these emails there’s evidence of conspiracy to violate campaign finance laws, there’s no precedent that suggests that those laws would be applied as broadly.”

Trump Jr’s legal jeopardy does not appear to end with campaign finance law, however. Federal law prohibits hacking under the computer fraud and abuse act of 1986, Shugerman pointed out. Trump Jr has not been accused of hacking, but it’s conceivable that he may at some point be vulnerable to accusations of a conspiracy involving hacking.


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