Watchdog groups file complaint with FEC accusing Donald Trump Jr. of breaking campaign finance law

Donald Trump Jr. gives a television interview at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio. Photo by Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters

Several watchdog groups filed a complaint Thursday with the Federal Election Commission accusing Donald Trump Jr. of illegally coordinating with Russia during the 2016 campaign, based on the emails he released earlier this week detailing the meeting he set up last year to obtain information on Hillary Clinton.

The complaint, a copy of which was obtained by PBS NewsHour, argues that Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign committee broke campaign finance law by soliciting contributions from a foreign national or foreign government when Trump Jr., former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner agreed to the meeting.

Trump Jr. "violated the ban on knowingly soliciting a contribution from a foreign national by arranging and attending a meeting to request and accept what he understood to be a valuable in-kind contribution to his father's presidential campaign in the form of opposition research on Hillary Clinton from the Russian government," the complaint said.

The complaint was filed by the advocacy groups Common Cause, the Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21. Paul S. Ryan, a vice president at Common Cause, and Catherine Hinckley Kelley, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, also signed onto the complaint.

One of the groups, Common Cause, filed a complaint with the FEC on Monday arguing that Trump Jr. had violated campaign finance law. That complaint, based on New York Times reports of the meeting Trump arranged last year, was filed before Trump released the emails Tuesday showing that he knew the meeting would offer information on Hillary Clinton from the Russian government.

The group also sent a letter to the Department of Justice requesting that Special Counsel Robert Mueller look into Trump Jr.'s actions as part of the federal investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

"The evidence is clear that Don Jr. knew that the offer of opposition campaign research came from the Russian government, and the law is clear that giving such valuable research for free would have been a contribution to the Trump campaign," Brendan Fischer, the director of federal and FEC reform program at Campaign Legal Center, said.

The filing also names Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and a senior adviser, and Paul Manafort, who served as President Trump's campaign manager, alleging that both men also violated FEC law by participating in the meeting the president's son set up with a Russian attorney in June of 2016.

The groups asked the FEC in the complaint to "determine and impose appropriate sanctions for any and all violations."

When reached by PBS Newshour, the office of Alan Futerfas, Trump Jr.'s attorney, asked that a request for comment be submitted by email. Futerfas did not immediately respond to NewsHour's emailed request for comment on the FEC complaint.

An FEC spokesperson said that the commission does not comment on pending enforcement matters.

Donald Trump Jr. came under scrutiny in the past week after reports surfaced of an email exchange in which Rob Goldstone, a music publicist who worked on the elder Trump's 2013 Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow, offered to set up a meeting to provide "high level" information on Clinton.

Goldstone wrote that the information was "part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump," adding that it would be "highly useful for your father." Trump Jr. responded by writing, "If it's what you say I love it especially later in the summer."

The exchange occurred as the elder Trump was securing the Republican presidential nomination and preparing for a general election contest against Clinton. The meeting took place at Trump Tower, and included Trump Jr., the Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya, Kushner and Manafort, who was managing the campaign at the time.

The next month, WikiLeaks released a trove of damaging emails on Clinton's campaign three days before the start of the Democratic National Convention. Candidate Trump touted the WikiLeaks revelations several times throughout the campaign, at one point urging Russia to uncover more Clinton emails.

Special counsel Robert Mueller and congressional investigators are now probing whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to help him win the 2016 election.

The president, his son, and others close to the White House have long dismissed the Russia investigations. President Trump has repeatedly called it a "witch hunt" and "fake news."

In a Tuesday interview with FOX News' Sean Hannity, Donald Trump Jr. defended his actions: "I didn't know if there was any credibility, I didn't know if there was anything behind it, I can't vouch for the information," Trump Jr. said. "Someone sent me an email. I can't help what someone sends me. I read it, I responded accordingly."

But the revelations of his son's meeting to obtain information on Clinton has raised new questions about the Trump team's connections to Russia. Congressional investigators have signaled they may now include Donald Trump Jr.'s actions in their investigation.

The FEC complaint opens the door for a separate probe into the president's son, Kushner and Manafort.

In the complaint, the groups argued that Trump Jr.'s actions meet the definition of solicitation under the law because he requested and helped arrange the meeting. Any "communication that provides a method of making a contribution" violates campaign finance law, the complaint said.

The complaint argues that Trump Jr. played a prominent role in the campaign as an "agent, strategist and spokesperson of Donald J. Trump for President, Inc." and that Trump Jr. was a headliner at fundraising events for the campaign and helped select the President Trump's running mate.

The complaint also claims that Trump Jr. acted knowingly, another threshold in determining wrongdoing under FEC law, because he was "aware of facts that would lead a reasonable person to conclude that" the information he would receive was coming from a foreign national.

WATCH: Did Donald Trump Jr. break the law? Two legal experts weigh in

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