The Special Counsel and several Congressional committees are investigating Russian interference with the 2016 election and the possible involvement of Trump campaign officials. The investigations are in their early stages, and it’s not yet clear whether any collusion took place. But some have suggested that even if it did, it would not be criminal.
Fox News commentator Brit Hume recently made this claim on Fox News Sunday. When one of the panelists noted that a grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia was conducting a criminal investigation, Hume interrupted:
But what crime? Can anybody identify the crime? Collusion, while it would be obviously alarming and highly inappropriate for the Trump campaign, of which there is no evidence by the way, of colluding with the Russians — it’s not a crime.
Hume was echoing a claim made by other Fox News pundits and supporters of the president. They imply the investigations must be politically motivated because collusion with Russians to interfere with our election, even if it did take place, would not be criminal.
No one knows yet what the various investigations will reveal. It’s certainly possible that no criminal misconduct will be found. But it’s wrong to suggest that criminal law is not even implicated here. If Trump campaign officials actively worked with Russians seeking to influence the outcome of the election, there are a number of potential criminal violations.
The Most Likely Charge: Criminal Conspiracy
Collusion is defined as a secret agreement to cooperate in some dishonest endeavor. This sounds a lot like criminal conspiracy, which prohibits agreements to pursue a criminal end. And indeed, the potential charge that most clearly applies to the Russian collusion allegations is the federal conspiracy statute, 18 U.S.C. § 371.
Section 371 prohibits two kinds of conspiracies: conspiracy to commit any offense against the United States and conspiracy to defraud the United States. Both theories potentially apply to any Russian collusion. The nature of a conspiracy charge makes it particularly appropriate for these allegations.
In a conspiracy case the offense is the agreement itself – the partnership in crime. A defendant must join the agreement with the intent to further its criminal objectives. But a defendant need not personally commit the crime that is the object of the conspiracy. In other words, it’s a crime to conspire to help another person commit an offense even if you don’t commit it yourself.
You also can conspire to help someone else commit a crime that you couldn’t possibly commit yourself – for example, because the statute doesn’t apply to you. The Supreme Court recently affirmed this principle in Ocasio v. United States, a case I wrote about here.
Finally, a conspiracy does not have to be successful. Conspiracy is a separate offense independent of the underlying object of the conspiracy. If the crime you conspire to commit is never carried out, for whatever reason, you can still be prosecuted for the conspiracy itself.
These features of conspiracy law have some obvious implications for any investigation of Russian collusion. For example, if Trump officials conspired to help Russians interfere with the election, they could be liable for conspiracy even if only the Russians did the actual interfering.
Similarly, if Trump officials conspired to help Russians violate bans on foreign involvement in U.S. campaigns, they could be liable for that conspiracy even though they were not foreign nationals and could not have committed the crime themselves.
Finally, because a conspiracy charge does not require proof that the conspiracy was successful, it would not require prosecutors to prove that any attempted interference actually impeded the election or affected the outcome.
Conspiracy to Defraud the United States
Section 371 prohibits conspiracies to defraud the United States “in any manner or for any purpose.” Typically, to defraud means to use dishonest methods to deprive someone of money or property. Using traditional mail or wire fraud to charge that the public was defrauded of its right to a fair election therefore would be problematic, because the intangible right to a fair election is not “property.”
But for purposes of Section 371 conspiracies to defraud the U.S., fraud has a different and broader meaning. In 1924 in Hammerschmidt v. United States the Supreme Court held that conspiracy to defraud the U.S. includes schemes “to interfere with or obstruct one of its lawful government functions by deceit, craft, or trickery, or at least by means that are dishonest.” A conspiracy to defraud the U.S. under 371 does not need to result in a loss of money or property by the federal government.
This theory is often used to charge schemes that involve disguising transactions to evade some government regulatory program, or hiding assets to thwart the IRS. Individuals can be guilty of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. even if their underlying conduct, standing alone, would not be illegal. They can also be found guilty even if prosecutors can’t prove that the government lost money as a result.
Running a free and fair Presidential election is a core lawful function of the federal government. Any agreement to secretly and dishonestly attempt to interfere with a federal election would fall squarely within section 371’s prohibition on conspiracies to defraud the United States.
This theory has been used in election fraud cases in the past. For example, in the 1990’s there was a scandal involving China’s attempts to promote its interests within the U.S. government and potentially influence the 1996 presidential election. Charlie Trie, a Chinese-American with ties to the Clintons, was convicted for violating various campaign finance rules by exceeding legal contribution amounts and concealing the true identity of donors. Among the charges in his indictment: conspiracy to defraud the U.S. under Section 371 by impairing and impeding the legitimate functions of the Federal Election Commission.
Conspiracy to Commit an Offense Against the United States
Section 371 also prohibits conspiracies to commit any offense against the United States. This applies to conspiracies to violate any criminal statute. The United States government does not need to be the victim of the intended crime.
Russian interference with the election reportedly involved hacking the Democratic National Committee computers and possibly other computer systems (including those run by state election officials). Breaking into computer systems without authorization violates 18 U.S.C. § 1030, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The CFAA criminalizes a wide range of activities involving hacking or other unauthorized access to and theft of information from private and government computers. Any conspiracy to engage in such hacking could be charged as a conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States.
Suppose, for example, Trump campaign officials agreed to somehow assist Russian hackers who were gaining unauthorized access to the DNC and other computers. That agreement could constitute a conspiracy to violate the CFAA, and could be prosecuted under Section 371. Because the crime is the conspiracy, Trump campaign officials could be charged even if the Russians did all of the actual hacking. The Russians also could be charged with violating the CFAA itself, but both the Russians and the Trump campaign officials who assisted them could be charged with conspiracy.
Conspiracy to Violate Election Laws
Another possible conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States would be conspiracy to violate federal election laws. I’m no authority on election law so I’m not going to venture very far here. But if there is a potential criminal violation of election laws, then campaign officials could conspire with Russian individuals to violate that law.
Election law experts have suggested these facts could violate prohibitions on foreign contributions to our elections. For example, 52 U.S.C.§ 30121 outlaws election contributions and donations by foreign nationals. It may be that activities by Russian individuals, such as stealing and then releasing emails damaging to the Clinton campaign, could be characterized as contributing something of value to the Trump campaign.
If Russians violated the law against foreign contributions and Trump campaign officials conspired to help them do so, the campaign officials could be guilty of a conspiracy to violate that election law. Again, this is true even though they were not foreign nationals and so could not violate that law directly.
Aiding and Abetting
Title 18, § 2 of the U.S. Code provides that anyone who “aids, abets, counsels, command, induces or procures” the commission of a crime can be found guilty of committing the crime themselves. This criminal law theory of aiding and abetting is also potentially relevant to the Russian collusion allegations.
The theory would be quite similar to the conspiracy charge, but with less focus on proving the criminal agreement. If the evidence revealed that Trump or his campaign officials asked or encouraged the Russians to interfere with the election or assisted them in any way, they potentially could be charged as aiders and abettors. Potential charges could include aiding and abetting a violation of the CFAA or of federal election law.
Accessory After the Fact and Misprision
Suppose Trump campaign officials got involved with Russian hackers only after the hacking was already completed, and worked with them on things like timing the release of certain emails. Conspiracy to violate the CFAA might not be a viable charge, because you can’t conspire to commit a crime that is already completed.
At that point a couple of other options would come into play. Accessory after the Fact, 18 U.S.C. § 3, punishes anyone who knows a crime against the U.S. has been committed and then “receives, relieves, comforts or assists the offender in order to hinder or prevent his apprehension, trial or punishment.” Anyone who worked with Russian hackers to help them conceal their activities and avoid detection or apprehension could be considered an accessory.
A related charge, Misprision of a Felony, 18 U.S.C. § 4, punishes anyone who has actual knowledge of a felony that has been committed against the U.S. and “does not as soon as possible make known the same to some judge or other person in civil or military authority.” Again, if Trump campaign officials got involved with Russian hackers after the hacking was completed and cooperated with them rather than reporting the hacking, misprision would be a potential charge.
Yes, Collusion Can Be Criminal
Once again, for the record: I’m not saying any of these crimes took place. I’m not suggesting that anyone will be charged, or should be charged. As with any criminal case, everything is going to depend on the facts and what evidence the government can present. But it’s simply nonsense to claim there is no basis here for a criminal investigation.
Some have suggested this idea is being floated as a trial balloon by the Trump administration to gauge the public reaction. It’s akin to the argument that the president couldn’t obstruct justice because, well, he’s the president. The apparent implication is that no matter what went on with the Russians or any attempts to thwart the FBI investigation, the investigations are just a political “witch hunt.” Nothing criminal to see here, folks, move along now.
We don’t know what the investigation will ultimately reveal. But we should dispense with the idea that colluding with Russian individuals to influence the outcome of our Presidential election would not be a crime. If the evidence is there, federal prosecutors have plenty of tools with which to build a case.
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