By this point, no one should be more alert to the danger of accepting campaign help from a foreign power than President Donald Trump. Special Counsel Robert Mueller looked hard at whether top Trump campaign officials, including the president’s eldest son, broke the law when they met with a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Hillary Clinton. Mueller ultimately decided he couldn’t prove a crime, but that ill-fated Trump Tower meeting reverberates to this day.
For any number of fathers, seeing their son in the crosshairs of the nation’s investigative machinery might be a powerful deterrent—a sign that it’s a good idea to avoid the sort of behavior that put the family at risk of prosecution in the first place. But Trump seems unfazed. In an interview with ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos that aired last night, he said that if a foreign country dangles incriminating information about an opponent in the 2020 race, he just might grab it. Asked if he would accept derogatory material about an opponent from China or Russia, or instead call the FBI, Trump said, “I think maybe you do both. I think you might want to listen, there isn’t anything wrong with listening.” He went on to say that if Norway, for example, were to call with such information, “Oh, I think I’d want to hear it.”
That answer suggests he hasn’t absorbed basic lessons from the 2016 race: foreign interference in U.S. elections is a grave and continuing threat that must be defeated, and embracing it can bring about a world of hurt. Rather than unequivocally reject any campaign help from a foreign power, Trump signaled it would be welcome so long as he’s the beneficiary. “It’s not an interference, they have information—I think I’d take it,” Trump said. His quest for an edge over a political opponent risks upending the rule of law.
Trump’s reasoning could be two-fold. He may reckon that his campaign needs help and will take it wherever it comes—he’s currently trailing Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden in national polls by an average of nearly nine points. But he may also be implicitly defending Donald Trump Jr., who had, hours before his father’s interview aired, testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee about the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower. Scrounging for dirt on an opponent is pretty basic stuff, the president argued. (White House press aides did not respond to a request for comment.)
Whatever his motivations, Trump’s remarks reignited an impeachment debate that had appeared to be cooling somewhat in Congress. Senator Kamala Harris of California, a Democratic presidential candidate, tweeted last night: “China is listening. Russia is listening. North Korea is listening. Let’s speak the truth: This president is a national security threat.” Elizabeth Warren, Harris’s colleague in the Senate and on the campaign trail, tweeted that after getting foreign help in 2016, Trump “said he’d do it all over again.”
A simple idea underpins the nation’s democratic tradition: Americans elect America’s leaders. But the notion at times seems lost on Trump. His comments to ABC, for one, echoed remarks he made almost three years ago, when he famously called on Russia to help recover 30,000 emails deleted from Clinton’s private server. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he told a news conference. Though he later said he was joking, he fooled Russia. That same day, Russians for the first time tried to hack into Clinton’s server, according to Mueller’s investigation.
More recently, Rudy Giuliani, the president’s lawyer, was planning a trip to Ukraine, in part, to urge the government to investigate the business dealings of Hunter Biden, son of Joe. Such an investigation could potentially embarrass the former vice president. But given the post-2016 sensitivities, it was a risk to Trump, too; Giuliani canceled the trip last month amid public accusations that he was soliciting foreign interference in the 2020 race.
Representative Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told me last night that Trump is sending an unmistakable message to nations eager to curry favor. “What foreign powers will conclude from this is that if they want to help the Trump campaign, the Trump campaign is open for business just as they were in 2016,” Schiff said. “The president has only increased the risk of further foreign interference in the next election.”
In the interview, Trump downplayed the sort of information that a foreign government might offer, labeling it “oppo research” that any member of Congress would gratefully accept. But Russia’s efforts to aid him and damage Clinton in 2016 went far beyond the public-records checks and background research that campaigns typically undertake. In his report, Mueller described Russian government interference that was “sweeping and systematic.” Russia “compromised” the Democratic National Committee’s computer networks and released hacked emails through WikiLeaks. Russian intelligence agents “stole hundreds of thousands of documents from the compromised email accounts and networks” belonging to Democratic organizations and members of the Clinton campaign.
What’s more, U.S. law explicitly bans contributions from foreign nationals, as Mueller noted, meaning that if Trump were to accept material from foreign sources looking to boost his chances, he’d again be exposing his campaign to legal jeopardy. “It’s deeply worrying that after all the trauma we’ve been through the last couple of years, the president seems to have deduced the wrong lesson—that he’s perfectly free to take help from a foreign government and there’s not much anyone can do about it,” Schiff said.
A president’s job is to uphold laws, not twist or ignore them depending on his campaign prospects. And Trump’s stance puts him at odds with the political appointees he’s installed at the nation’s top law-enforcement agencies. Last month, when Attorney General William Barr testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he was asked if a campaign contacted by, say, North Korea, should alert the FBI. Barr hesitated before giving his answer, but said that if a foreign intelligence service made the overture, calling the FBI would be the right move.
FBI Director Christopher Wray, testifying in a separate hearing last month, said that contacts between foreign agents and a 2020 presidential campaign would be “something the FBI would want to know about.” Trump balked at that assertion, telling Stephanopoulos: “The FBI director is wrong, because frankly, it doesn’t happen like that in life. Now maybe it will start happening, maybe today you’d think differently.” In 2016, it indeed happened like that, but Trump has shown no sign he’ll heed the right lesson.