Following Sean Hannity’s exclusive interview with Donald Trump Jr., Fox News host Eric Bolling repeated an argument that the network’s personalities have used before — that even if someone from the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government, collusion itself is not a crime.
Bolling and his Fox News Specialists co-hosts Eboni Williams and Kat Timpf appeared on the network after Hannity’s hourlong show on July 11, 2017. Trump Jr. had defended himself for meeting with a Russian lawyer in hopes of receiving damaging information on Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign.
While discussing Trump Jr.’s comments, Williams noted that she didn’t see evidence of collusion. Bolling then added, "Collusion is not illegal either, by the way."
We reached out to Fox News and did not hear back, but the network’s personalities have used similar arguments before. We’re not going to weigh in on whether Trump Jr. actually broke any laws, but we did wonder if there were laws that would apply to the idea of collusion.
Legal scholars told us that the word "collusion" may not appear in statutes, but working with Russian officials could still violate criminal law.
Daniel Lowenstein, law professor emeritus at UCLA, considered collusion a vague term that would describe "some course of conduct that is adverse to someone else’s interests," especially if it were being done in secret.
"It seems to me that what has been meant by collusion since this controversy began has been some agreement or understanding that the Russians would in some way assist Trump’s electoral prospects and would be rewarded in some way by Trump as president acting favorably toward Russia," Lowenstein said. "That would very likely be illegal and surely would be highly improper."
Stanford University law professor Nathaniel Persily cited the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. A 2011 U.S. District Court ruling based on that law found that foreign nationals could not make expenditures "to expressly advocate the election or defeat of a political candidate."
"A foreign national spending money to influence a federal election can be a crime," Persily said. "And if a U.S. citizen coordinates, conspires or assists in that spending, then it could be a crime."
The 2002 law enhanced penalties for violating statute for contributions and donations by foreign nationals that have been in effect since 1966, according to Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a professor at the Stetson University College of Law. It’s relevant if Trump Jr. thought he was getting information about Clinton.
"Since opposition research is typically something one would have to pay for, it is reasonable to consider opposition research ‘a thing of value’ under this statute," she said.
University of Kentucky law professor Josh Douglas agreed that soliciting "dirt" on Clinton could arguably be considered valuable under federal law. He also said working with a foreign entity in a federal election could potentially be subject to public corruption or anti-coercion federal election law.
John Coates, a Harvard University law professor, said that Russians looking to affect the election could potentially be defined as an expenditure. The related funds could be construed as an illegal contribution to a candidate who coordinates with the foreigner, he said.
Discussions between a campaign and a foreigner could violate the law against fraud, Coates added.
"Under that statute, it is a federal crime to conspire with anyone, including a foreign government, to ‘deprive another of the intangible right of honest services,’ " he said. "That would include fixing a fraudulent election, in my view, within the plain meaning of the statute."
University of California, Irvine law professor Rick Hasen said that in addition to possible violations of campaign finance and other federal laws, the Trump campaign could be open to another charge.
"If others participated in the scheme to do this it could be a conspiracy," Hasen said. "Whether you want to call that ‘collusion’ or not seems besides the point."
Bolling said "collusion is not illegal."
Legal scholars told us the word "collusion" is vague and may not be specifically used in legal language. But conduct that may be described as collusion could potentially be subject to multiple federal laws, including statutes on foreign contributions to elections and fraud.
We rate Bolling’s statement Mostly False.