In a new interview with ABC News, Trump telegraphed as clearly as one could want how he’ll greet another foreign interference effort. He was asked whether Donald Trump Jr. should have called the FBI when he was offered dirt on Hillary Clinton provided by the Russian government.
“Let’s put yourself in a position — you’re a congressman,” Trump replied. “Somebody comes up and says, ‘Hey, I have information on your opponent.' Do you call the FBI?” Trump added: “I don’t think in my whole life I’ve ever called the FBI.”
When ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos pointed out that his own FBI director, Christopher Wray, has called for exactly that, Trump said: “The FBI director is wrong.”
Asked whether he’d call the FBI if a foreign power again offers his campaign information on an opponent, Trump said: “I think maybe you do both. I think you might want to listen. There’s nothing wrong with listening.” Trump declared: “I think I’d want to hear it.”
“If I thought there was something wrong, I’d go maybe to the FBI,” Trump said, while also clarifying that such an effort would not be “an interference. They have information.”
In other words, if there’s another foreign attack on our political system, Trump might go to the FBI if he thinks there’s something wrong, but also, he won’t think there’s anything wrong.
Trump World is fine with another attack
In saying this, Trump articulated a stark version of what has been Trump World’s position for years. That has two components. First, that the 2016 Russian effort either didn’t happen (Russia “never” helped, says Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale) or was a big nothing (a “couple of Facebook ads,” scoffed son-in-law Jared Kushner).
The second component is that it’s debatable whether another sabotage effort would merit calling law enforcement (“I don’t know” if I’d call the FBI, says Kushner) or whether there’d be anything wrong with benefiting from it at all (there’s “nothing wrong” with taking information from the Russians, says Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani).
Trump straddles these positions. The Russian interference never happened, he says (the whole investigation was a “hoax”), but also, if another foreign attack happened, he probably won’t call the FBI, and accepting help from one is absolutely justified. He’ll take whatever help he can get.
Russian interference was more than help for Trump
Trump’s claim that such sabotage is merely an offer of “information” obscures reality. The Russian effort was not just a mere offer of assistance, as in, oh, hey, here’s some research from the Internet we did on your opponent.
Rather, intelligence officials concluded it was also intended to “undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process” and to “undermine the U.S.-led liberal democratic order.” Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation concluded that Russia’s “sweeping and systematic” attack involved massive cybertheft aimed at one major U.S. political party and disinformation warfare designed to divide the country along racial and social lines.
Mueller also concluded that Trump and/or his campaign eagerly encouraged, tried to conspire with, and happily profited off of those efforts. Yet Mueller did not find sufficient evidence of a criminal conspiracy.
So what do you do if one major-party candidate and his supporters don’t think such actions are a big deal, if they’re benefiting from them?
Well, we can change our laws so that such foreign attacks are harder to pull off and less likely to do their intended damage, while making it tougher for campaigns to tacitly dance at a distance with such schemes and avoid reporting what they know about them.
McConnell is blocking election security bills
The bills include a Democratic measure that would send more than $1 billion to state and local governments to tighten election security, but would also demand a national strategy to protect American democratic institutions against cyberattacks and require that states spend federal funds only on federally certified “election infrastructure vendors.” A bipartisan measure in both chambers would require internet companies like Facebook to disclose the purchasers of political ads.
Another bipartisan Senate proposal would codify cyberinformation-sharing initiatives between federal intelligence services and state election officials, speed up the granting of security clearances to state officials and provide federal incentives for states to adopt paper ballots.
Meanwhile, another bill would require campaigns to report offers of foreign assistance.
McConnell will not allow any such bills to reach the Senate floor. House Democrats, to be clear, should respond to Trump’s new remarks by speeding up consideration of their own package of reforms targeted toward shoring up our elections. If the House passes such a package, McConnell won’t allow it to move, but it will renew pressure on him.
Perhaps you doubt Trump would sign any such legislation even if it did pass Congress. But this is no excuse. As Jonathan Bernstein notes, if Republicans — led by McConnell — insisted that the president must carry out his institutional role and defend the country, it would be much harder for him to abdicate it.
This is the same McConnell, of course, who was asked in 2016 by top intelligence officials to join in bipartisan condemnation of Russian interference on Trump’s behalf, and refused, claiming he would denounce any public condemnation of it as partisan politics.
We now know beyond any doubt that Trump is inviting and will welcome another outside effort to sabotage our political system. But this would not represent quite as much of a threat were McConnell not actively making such an effort more likely to be effective.