It was shocking enough to hear President Trump declare publicly that he is open for business with foreign adversaries who have dirt to offer on his political opponents. But in doing so, he has also revealed a disturbing truth about himself.
Trump would not feel under any obligation to alert the FBI to an overture from a foreign country, he said, because of the experiences he had as a casino operator and New York real estate developer, two businesses notorious for transactional ethics and shady operators.
“I’ll 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,” he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. “You don’t call the FBI. . . . Life doesn’t work that way.”
With that, the president of the United States confirmed something fundamental about himself, something that so many of his actions have implied.
In Trump’s view, a person who sits behind the Resolute desk in the Oval Office — which, as it happens, was where he was when he said those words — is not obliged to operate by a different set of standards from those of a businessman who regularly deals with underworld goons.
Trump not only made it clear that his first impulse will always be to consider his own interests before the national security of the country he leads. He even went so far as to invite foreign nations to interfere with our election: “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.”
“It’s not an interference,” Trump added. “They have information. I think I’d take it.”
His preposterous argument was that material offered by, say, another country’s intelligence service is no different than the research that campaigns routinely do on their opponents. “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,” Trump said.
But federal law draws a bright line when it comes to foreign influence in U.S. elections, even by private citizens. That is why, for instance, foreign nationals are prohibited from contributing money or anything else of value to candidates and political parties.
And, of course, there should always be a presumption that any foreign power offering an electoral assist would expect something in return. Such is the art of the deal.
On Thursday, amid the firestorm he created with his comments, Trump argued that accepting dirt on his political opponents from foreign governments is indistinguishable from the normal operation of international diplomacy.
“I meet and talk to ‘foreign governments’ every day,” he wrote in back-to-back tweets. “I just met with the Queen of England (U.K.), the Prince of Wales, the P.M. of the United Kingdom, the P.M. of Ireland, the President of France and the President of Poland. We talked about ‘Everything!’ Should I immediately call the FBI about these calls and meetings? How ridiculous! I would never be trusted again. With that being said, my full answer is rarely played by the Fake News Media. They purposely leave out the part that matters.”
Maybe Trump truly doesn’t see the difference. But there is a corrosive irony at the heart of all of this: The same president who is actively encouraging other nations to undermine the integrity of the U.S. electoral system rarely misses an opportunity to wrap himself in the imagery of patriotism. He has corrupted and redefined the American ideal from a set of shared values into a personal cult.
Trump is even planning to hijack the traditionally nonpartisan Independence Day celebration on the Mall and turn it into a giant tribute to himself by giving a speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
As the president tweeted in a February announcement, the plan is to hold “one of the biggest gatherings in the history of Washington, D.C., on July 4th. It will be called ‘A Salute To America’ and will be held at the Lincoln Memorial. Major fireworks display, entertainment and an address by your favorite President, me!”
We are long past the point of having any realistic hope that Trump might grow into the enormous responsibilities he assumed with an oath that he would faithfully execute the office of the president and preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.
The question now is what kind of wreckage he will leave behind when he is gone.