JUNE 13, 2019
It sounds almost reasonable coming out of President Donald Trump’s mouth.
Sure, he’d take dirt on an opponent from a foreign government, he told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos in an interview that left lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle gobsmacked. Who wouldn’t?
But as both a legal and a practical matter, it is not reasonable. Stephen Vladeck, a CNN legal analyst and national security expert at the University of Texas School of Law, came up, very quickly, with a short list of issues.
The top-level points are his and the explanations underneath are from me.
It’s a crime under federal election law for a campaign to knowingly solicit or accept items of value from foreign nationals. In this case, dirt on a opponent could qualify as something of value.
‘It opens the President up to blackmail’
Assuming the dirt is given and the public or the FBI isn’t told, the politician taking the dirt would have a secret with a foreign government that could be held over them. Trump knows something about trying to keep things quiet.
According to his now-imprisoned former fixer and lawyer, Michael Cohen, Trump OK’d and orchestrated payments to silence women who said they had affairs with him. Cohen admitted that the payments, meant to influence the election, broke federal election law. Trump has denied having affairs with the women.
‘It openly invites foreign governments to do something that we spend billions of dollars trying to prevent’
The entire national security apparatus — composed of Trump appointees — has warned of foreign interference in US elections and the US has been working to counteract it. Russians spread fake news on social media to frustrate Democrats. They hacked Democratic emails in 2016. Trump said in the ABC interview that he was OK with “oppo research,” but how would he know how a foreign government got the oppo research?
Further, by saying he’d take the oppo research, he could be encouraging foreign governments to ferret it out. There’s evidence for this. The same day he publicly asked Russia — jokingly, or no — to find missing Hillary Clinton emails in 2016, Russians started trying, for the first time, to penetrate her personal server.
‘It suggests that foreign governments can curry favor with the President by digging up dirt on his political opponents’
Wouldn’t he be a little suspicious of why the foreign government was offering him information? Would he be thankful if it were really damaging to his opponent?
And that bring us to Vladeck’s final point, which is perhaps the most important: When Trump says there’s nothing wrong with taking information for a political campaign from a foreign government, he makes it sound OK.
“That anyone thinks this kind of statement from the President of the United States is even remotely defensible is a sign of just how much he’s corrupted our public discourse,” said Vladeck.
What set Trump off?
The context, which is important, is that he was defending his son Donald Jr., who on the day of the ABC interview was testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee about his infamous meeting during the 2016 campaign with a Russian lawyer. He took that meeting after a publicist named Rob Goldstone said in an email that he could facilitate information via the pop star son of a Russian billionaire that was damaging to Clinton. The information, according to the publicist, was coming from a Russian government official and was part of the Russian government’s support for Trump.
That promise turned out to be bunk, but at the time, Donald Jr. said, “If it’s what you say, I love it.”
The Mueller report found there was not enough evidence to prove a criminal conspiracy between the campaign and the Russian government, but it didn’t leave anyone looking like a saint.
That’s the backdrop for this remarkable exchange between Trump and Stephanopoulos.
Stephanopoulos: Should he have gone to the FBI when he got that email?
Trump: OK, let’s put yourself in a position. You’re a congressman. Somebody comes up and says, ‘Hey, I have information on your opponent.’ Would you call the FBI?
Stephanopoulos: If it’s coming from Russia, you do.
Trump: I tell you what, I’ve seen a lot of things over my life, I don’t think in my whole life I’ve ever called the FBI. In my whole life. I don’t. You don’t call the FBI. You throw somebody out of your office. You do whatever you do. …
Stephanopoulos: Al Gore got a stolen briefing book. He called the FBI.
Trump: Well, that’s different — a stolen briefing book. This isn’t a stolen briefing book. This is somebody who said we have information on your opponent. Oh. Let me call the FBI. Give me a break. Life doesn’t work that way.
Stephanopoulos: The FBI director says that’s what should happen.
Trump: The FBI director is wrong.
Stephanopoulos: Your campaign this time. If foreigners, if Russia, if China, if someone else offers you information on an opponent, should they accept it or should they call the FBI?
Trump: I think maybe you do both. I think you might want to listen. I don’t. There’s nothing wrong with listening. If somebody called from a country — Norway — we have information on your opponent. Oh. I think I’d want to hear it.
Stephanopoulos: You want that kind of interference in our elections?
Trump: It’s not interference. They have information. I think I’d take it. If I thought there was something wrong, I’d go take it, maybe, to the FBI. If I thought there was something wrong.
But if somebody comes up with oppo reasearch, right, they come up with oppo research. Oh, let’s call the FBI. The FBI doesn’t have enough agents to take care of it. But you go talk honestly to congressmen; they all do it, they always have. It’s called oppo research.
The are many issues with Trump’s argument, and several of them have to do with his own situation and philosophy.
Trump’s supposed to be a nationalist
Trump describes himself as a nationalist. His first thought, he says, is to put what’s best for the country first. But in this case, he’s saying it’s OK to work with a foreign government, or at least accept information from a foreign government, that would hurt a US politician.
Trump says there was no collusion
The President has spent the last two years swearing up and down there was “NO COLLUSION!” between his campaign and Russia. And he claimed vindication when the Mueller report did not identify enough information to pursue criminal charges. However, it’s now clear that Trump is perfectly OK working with a foreign power against his opponents. There may not have been collusion in 2016, but Trump is arguing here that what a lot of people would classify as collusion is perfectly OK.
Trump has been the victim of dirt
That experience, which was clearly distasteful for him and may be at the root of his clear distrust of the FBI, has obviously not had the effect of turning him away from dirt.
It should not escape anyone’s attention that in 2016, Trump was the victim of a controversial dossier gathered by a foreign former spy from sources abroad. It alleged a lot of things that have not been verified, but was taken seriously by the United States.
Trump says the information in the dossier is completely untrue. Some of the dossier claims have been debunked, others have held up over time and other parts are partially true.
Trump also spent much of 2016 spreading uncorroborated conspiracy theories about his opponents, however — so his level of comfort now with the idea of political dirt maybe isn’t surprising at all.