Wednesday, June 12, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He made sure Russia would be listening.

In an Oval Office interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, Trump said today that if a foreign government approached him with information to use against a Democratic challenger, he would take advantage of it. He also said, incorrectly, that nothing would require him to report foreign interference like this to the FBI.

Here is a transcript of the portion released tonight by ABC. Stephanopoulos was asking Trump about the trouble that his son, Donald Trump Jr., had gotten into over apparently untruthful testimony about the now-infamous Trump Tower meeting with Russian agents peddling disinformation about Hillary Clinton.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Should [Donald Trump Jr.] have gone to the FBI when he got that e-mail? 
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." Do 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. 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.

Stephanopoulos is essentially correct here, although the Bush campaign strategy materials were sent to a Gore surrogate, Rep. Tom Downey, who was helping him prepare for the debates. Downey turned them over to the FBI immediately, without involving the Gore campaign.

TRUMP: Well, that's different, a stolen briefing book.

At this point, Trump seemed to move away from a hypothetical situation to a specific case where Russia offered him assistance, or where he asked for it from Russia.

TRUMP: This isn't a stolen—this is somebody that said, "We have information on your opponent." Oh, let me call the FBI. Give me a break! Life doesn't work that way.

The DNC e-mails that the Russian government released via Wikileaks were, in fact, stolen.

STEPHANOPOULOS: The FBI director says that's what should happen
TRUMP: The FBI director is wrong.

The FBI director is not wrong. It is a crime for a foreign entity to give anything of value to an American political campaign, and it is a crime for any campaign to "solicit, accept, or receive" anything of value from a foreign source. 

Government officials—like Trump is now—also have an affirmative duty to report violations of federal law. Trump's oath of office requires that he "take care that the laws be faithfully executed." 

STEPHANOPOULOS: Your campaign this time around. If foreigners, if Russia, if China, if someone else offers you information on opponents, 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'd want that kind of interference in our elections? 
TRUMP: It's not an interference! They have an information. I think I'd take it. If I thought there was something wrong, I'd go maybe to the FBI, if I thought there was something wrong. But when somebody comes up with oppo research, 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.

The FBI has 35,000 employees, including many specifically detailed to election security and preventing election fraud.

TRUMP: But you go and talk honestly to congressmen, they all do it, they always have. And that's the way it is.

Exactly one member of Congress in the last 230 years has been investigated for soliciting campaign assistance from a foreign source: Michael Grimm, a New York Republican who resigned in 2015 and served seven months in prison on related charges. Grimm had asked an Israeli citizen for help getting donations from his religious followers.

Trump did not elaborate on why he thought getting election help from foreign sources was so commonplace.

Why is this a bad thing?

  • Encouraging other countries to spy on Americans is a betrayal of the oath of office.
  • A candidate—especially an incumbent president—who makes himself beholden to foreign countries to get elected can be manipulated by them.
  • Even when it's true, "everybody does it" isn't how a president should defend committing crimes.
  • Someone who says "no collusion" as often as Trump probably shouldn't admit to being willing to collude with foreign spy agencies.
  • If you can't get elected without illegal foreign help, you probably shouldn't be in office.