During an ABC News interview on Wednesday, June 12, 2019, Donald Trump told George Stephanopoulos that he’d likely accept “information” offered by a foreign government for use in his reelection campaign. He said, “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.” He then continued that if he thought there’s “something wrong” with the offer, he’d “maybe” tell the FBI. But Trump nevertheless asserted that accepting “oppo research” from a foreign government was perfectly fine, telling Stephanopoulos, “They have information, I think I’d take it.”
These recent remarks have obviously caused intense controversy and reopened wounds from the Mueller investigation and the 2016 campaign. In fact, Special Counsel Robert Mueller had just finished a 2-year investigation into this very thing. We have to recall that in mid-2016, Donald Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. took a meeting to get dirt on Hillary Clinton allegedly from the Russian government. Mueller investigated Trump Jr.’s conduct for a potential campaign finance violation but decided not to charge him. Since word about it got out in 2017, Trump has continued defending his son’s actions, but his assertion poses legal and ethical issues. It’s also interpreted as yet another sign that Trump doesn’t seem particularly alarmed with broader Russian effort to help him win in 2016, including by hacking and leaking Democrats’ emails. Trump’s latest comments appeared to go too far for some of his allies. Fox & Friends’ Brian Kilmeade noted on June 13, “You don’t want a foreign government or foreign entity giving you information because they will want something back. If anybody knows that, it’s the president. There is no free lunch. If someone wants information, then they’re going to want influence. I think the president’s got to clarify that.” South Carolina US Senator Lindsey Graham tweeted, “I believe that it should be practice for all public officials who are contacted by a foreign government with an offer of assistance to their campaign — either directly or indirectly — to inform the FBI and reject the offer.” While Texas US Senator Jon Cornyn stated that Trump’s remarks were “dangerous territory.” Of course, in a move of classic whataboutism, those 2 backtracked with arguing how Hillary’s campaign funding the Steele Dossier was equally problematic (it’s not) so they can continually kiss Trump’s.
Back in June 2016, Donald Trump Jr. received an email from an acquaintance named Rob Goldstone, a British publicist who worked with the Agarlov family, an Azeri-Russian father-son pair of wealthy real estate developers who worked with the Trumps before. Goldstone claimed that Aras Agarlov had met with the “Crown prosecutor of Russia,” who had “offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.” He then added: “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump — helped along by Aras and Emin.” Trump Jr. enthusiastically responded, “if it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.” They soon agreed to set up a meeting in Trump Tower to discuss the information. However, the meeting appears to be a dud since the Mueller report doesn’t document any information being passed or any deal being struck. Nor did Mueller find any indication that the offered information had any connection to the Russian hackings. But Donald Trump Jr.’s eagerness to accept dirt allegedly coming from a foreign government was viewed as scandalous. Some experts even argued it’s criminal since it’s a campaign finance law violation to accept or even solicit “thing of value” from a foreign source.
So when George Stephanopoulos asked Donald Trump about Donald Trump Jr.: “Should he have gone to the FBI when he got that email?” Obviously, the answer is yes. However, Trump said no, arguing that such a thing would be naïve, claiming, “Give me a break. Life doesn’t work that way.” What the fuck? Instead, he said that if something shady was going on, the correct response should be, “throw somebody out of your office,” since calling the FBI would be too much. When Stephanopoulos said that the FBI director (a guy Trump appointed, by the way) said that candidates should call them in such a situation, Trump answered: “The FBI director is wrong.” Then Stephanopoulos asked the question that would cause Trump so much trouble: “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 gives the odd answer: “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.” Note that Trump used a benign country like Norway instead of responding to the specific question about Russia and China.
Pressed by Stephanopoulos, Donald Trump distinguished between foreign, “interference” and simple “information” and “oppo research,” which he claimed was perfectly fine to accept from a foreign source. Here’s his answer:
“It’s not interference. They have 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. (mockingly) ‘Oh, let’s call the FBI.’
“The FBI doesn’t have enough agents to take care of it. When you go and talk, honestly, to congressmen, they all do it. They always have, and that’s the way it is. It’s called oppo research.”
Note that Donald Trump left open the possibility that if he “thought there was something wrong,” he’d go to the FBI. And he doesn’t say it’s okay to accept hacked or stolen material from a foreign power. Still, the idea that a foreign government would offer damaging information on your opponent in an election year should be cause for suspicion, since it’s a glaring red flag it wants to interfere in your political process and want something from you in terms of policy. This is especially the case if the government in question is a known adversary like Russia. And that is why you go to the FBI.
Nonetheless, Trump probably thinks accepting dirt about a political opponent from a foreign power is totally fine even if the info material is hacked or stolen. After all, he publicly asked Russia to “find” Hillary Clinton’s emails during the 2016 presidential campaign. Not to mention, he privately asked Michael Flynn to try and get a hold on those emails. Still, the whole idea seems to be: Donald Trump Jr. did nothing wrong. And if a foreign government has information that would help Trump’s reelection campaign, Trump would be happy to hear it.
Obviously, people are appalled by Donald Trump’s remarks. Some argue it’s simply unethical to accept “opposition research” from a foreign government, particularly an adversary like Russia. Federal Election Commission head Ellen Weintraub tweeted why it’s illegal for US political candidates to accept contributions from foreign governments, along with “I would not have thought I needed to say this.” She then went on to clarify: “Let me make something 100% clear to the American public and anyone running for public office: It is illegal for any person to solicit, accept, or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election. This is not a novel concept. Election intervention from foreign governments has been considered unacceptable since the founding of our nation.” Others pointed to the practical problem claiming that said foreign government might expect a reward. But there’s also an underlying legal issue on which Trump seems to be giving really bad advice. In other words, Trump doesn’t think it’s a problem for a campaign to accept “opposition research” because it’s just information. However, federal election law states that campaigns can’t accept foreign money contributions or any “thing of value” from foreign sources. Given that knowledge is power and information is very valuable resource in political campaigns, is opposition research like the “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary” promised to Donald Trump Jr. a thing of value? Well, Trump Jr. seemed to think so that he was willing to go through all the trouble to set up a meeting at Trump Tower for it.
The Mueller report explored this very subject, and concluded: probably. The report reads, “There are reasonable arguments that the offered information would constitute a ‘thing of value.’” After all, knowledge is power. While political campaigns do tons of opposition research on a candidate in hopes for finding dirt on their opponents. As Robert Mueller writes:
“These authorities would support the view that candidate-related opposition research given to a campaign for the purpose of influencing an election could constitute a contribution to which the foreign-source ban could apply.
“…Political campaigns frequently conduct and pay for opposition research. A foreign entity that engaged in such research and provided resulting information to a campaign could exert a greater effect on an election, and a greater tendency to ingratiate the donor to the candidate, than a gift of money or tangible things of value.”
But Robert Mueller doesn’t unreservedly endorse this view. Since he also expressed concerns about how this interpretation would fare in court:
“At the same time, no judicial decision has treated the voluntary provision of uncompensated opposition research or similar information as a thing of value that could amount to a contribution under campaign-finance laws. Such an interpretation could… raise First Amendment questions. These questions could be especially difficult where the information consisted simply of the recounting of historically accurate facts. It is uncertain how courts would resolve those issues.”
Nonetheless, leaving the issue aside, Robert Mueller didn’t end up bringing charges against the meeting’s participants for 2 separate reasons. First, is establishing willfulness. Did Donald Trump Jr. and the other meeting participants know they were breaking the law? As Mueller wrote, “The investigation has not developed evidence that the participants in the meeting were familiar with the foreign-contribution ban or the application of federal law to the relevant factual context.” Secondly, Mueller said that Rob Goldstone’s promised information is difficult to value at above $2,000, the threshold for a criminal violation, writing “Although damaging opposition research is surely valuable to a campaign, it appears that the information ultimately delivered in the meeting was not valuable.” Besides, when Trump Jr. agreed to take the meeting, he might’ve understood the information “as being of uncertain worth or reliability.” So Mueller most certainly didn’t say that accepting opposition research from a foreign government is very legal and very cool (quite the contrary). However, he chose not to bring charges in this particular instance. For reasons relating to specific evidence and the situation. In all, Mueller didn’t establish coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia. But his report makes it clear that the Trump campaign, “expected it would benefit from information stolen and released through Russian efforts” during the 2016 campaign.
Now the United States has laws to govern how political campaigns can and can’t operate. Many of these laws are meant to limit or in some cases, just illuminate the amount if outside money trying to influence political candidates. When it comes to foreign influence, the law is clear. As Weintraub wrote: it’s “illegal for any person to solicit, accept, or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election.” In most cases, the meaning’s quite obvious: foreign nationals can’t donate money to a presidential campaign. In addition, it’s also illegal for candidates to solicit or receive money contributions from foreign nationals. But while a “thing of value” is easy to define when it comes to money, services, or in-kind contributions, it’s a lot more complicated in the realm of information like opposition research or campaign dirt. Northwestern University law professor Michael Kang told Vox, “Campaign-relevant information from a foreign national definitely can be an illegal in-kind contribution, but it gets trickier when the information does not have obvious cash value and isn’t necessarily something that a campaign regularly needs to buy. The policy concern is that any valuable advice or tip from a foreign national could, at least in theory, become an illegal in-kind contribution.”
As part of his investigation into the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, Special Counsel Robert Mueller grappled with this question, where Donald Trump Jr. and other Trump campaign members met with a Russian national who had promised them “dirt” on Hillary Clinton as part of Moscow’s effort to support Donald Trump. Mueller concluded in his report that, “candidate-related opposition research given to a campaign for the purpose of influencing an election could constitute a contribution to which the foreign-source ban could apply.” But he added that the issue hasn’t been court-tested and could also have freedom of speech implications. Nonetheless, Mueller ultimately decided not to prosecute Trump Jr. over enigmas in regards to information value and criminal intent, making it hard to prove campaign finance violations beyond reasonable doubt. But experts are split mostly because as Loyola University law professor Jessica Levinson told Vox, “There’s a reason campaigns pay for opposition research: We literally value it. It can be much more useful and valuable than walking in with a check.”
Nevertheless, given the blowback, Donald Trump has tried to sort of walk back in a Fox & Friends interview on June 14. He told them, “You’d have to look at [the information being offered], because if you don’t look at it, you won’t know it’s bad. But, of course, you give it to the FBI or report to the attorney general or somebody like that.” While it wasn’t an unequivocal condemnation, it’s renewed questions on what’s legal and what’s not in regards to foreign nationals in US campaigns. And to ensure that it’s illegal, House Democrats have promised to roll out a bill requiring campaigns to report any foreign government offering dirt on their opponents to the FBI. He also said that he doesn’t, “think anybody would present me with anything because they know how much I love the country.” But his comments during his interview with George Stephanopoulos suggest otherwise. Also, his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner also won’t say in an Axios interview the previous week whether he’d call the FBI if offered dirt again. So that refusal to be unequivocal about foreign interference undermines a thing of value for all Americans: the belief in the integrity of the vote.
Nearly 2 months after the Mueller report’s release, Congress remains at an impasse about what to do next. The special counsel didn’t end up charging any crimes related to collusion with the Russian government to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. He also chose not to say whether Donald Trump criminally obstructed justice. One House Democrat faction supports a beginning an impeachment inquiry against Trump, based on the conduct described in the report. Yet, the most of the caucus, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, doesn’t want to go down that road. Namely because Republicans control the US Senate and they’re all currently kissing Trump’s ass. So they’ll not only acquit him, but also frame the impeachment proceedings as a Democratic political stunt and a waste of everyone’s time.
Looming over all this is the question of what, exactly, this might mean in the 2020 election. Foreign powers could certainly interpret Donald Trump’s comments as a green light to send him whatever information he might find helpful. That said, Trump and foreign governments are all surely aware of what that might lead to: another lengthy investigation like Robert Mueller’s, which even though it didn’t end disastrously for Trump (unfortunately), surely wasn’t a pleasant experience. As Ellen Weintraub noted, America’s founders knew that when foreign governments seek to interfere in elections, it’s always to advance their interests, not ours. And that’s a bigger problem with Donald Trump’s apparent dismissal of the seriousness regarding foreigners reaching out to offer dirt to rival candidates. University of Miami law professor Frances Hill told Vox that while criminal law discussions are important, Trump’s “acting in a way that undermines national security.” As of 2019, just about the only thing Democrats and Republicans agree on the Mueller report is that Russia interfered in the 2016 Election. The intelligence community has said that Russia will certainly try again in 2020. While other countries like China and Iran will have learned 2016’s lessons and be eager to follow suit.
Nonetheless, it’s clear that even if Donald Trump’s campaign didn’t collude, he sees no problem with accepting dirt on opponents from foreign government, which should be reason enough to see Trump as a national security liability. Furthermore, the Trump campaign was willing to benefit from Russia’s election interference in 2016. Besides, not only does Trump not care that Russia’s actions in the 2016 election not only threatened American interests, sovereignty, and national security, but he’ll openly on Vladimir Putin to do it again. Still, let’s accept Trump’s “America First” nationalism for what it is: an exclusive nationalism centering on hating foreigners and difference. Or more accurately, xenophobia by another name. Any principled nationalist would see foreign efforts to interfere with a US election as an unacceptable infringement on American sovereignty and independence. Obviously, Trump isn’t principled nor does he value American independence. And if a president doesn’t have principles nor values independence should be impeached, especially if they pose a significant danger to the United States. Trump has. Furthermore, he’s personally profited off the presidency in flagrant violation of the Emoluments Clause in the US Constitution, especially since foreign dignitaries have stayed on his resorts and in his hotels on the taxpayer’s dime. So the question is not whether he should be impeached, but why he hasn’t been impeached now.