Combating foreign interference in our elections is a whole lot harder when the president is asking for it — let alone when he’s bullying countries into doing it. If that kind of request isn’t seen as grounds for removal from office, this isn’t likely to be the last time such interference happens. Our new normal will be an election determined both by Americans and whichever foreign actors Trump has managed to enlist as campaign surrogates. Any foreign government that wants to attack our elections just has to offer to investigate one of Trump’s rivals. Trump would have every reason to feel more comfortable asking foreign governments to do his political bidding because he knows he probably wouldn’t be held accountable for it.
But Trump’s request to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky didn’t happen in a vacuum, and neither would future interference attempts. Intelligence and law enforcement officials are constantly working to identify and neutralize foreign election interference. If the Senate acquits Trump and the intelligence community comes across other, similar attempts in the future, it will face a new set of challenges as it weighs how to investigate and hold individuals accountable. After all, if the president is operating with impunity, the intelligence community and the FBI may be forced to treat his associates as if they are, too. If they try to do the nonpartisan job of protecting our elections, they may find themselves caught in a political bind.
We have already seen this play out, with parts of our intelligence community seemingly becoming complicit in Trump’s abuses of power. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) indicated last week that the National Security Agency is withholding information on the issue of Ukraine. That means the intelligence community may have information that directly undercuts Trump’s defense — including intelligence on whether the Ukrainians felt pressured into announcing an investigation of the Biden family, as Trump had requested. The credibility of the intelligence community rests on its nonpartisanship, yet we now have indications that it isn’t providing intelligence that may be key to defending our democracy. This sets a dangerous precedent going forward: Even if intelligence officials have information relevant to oversight of a president’s behavior, they may choose to withhold it.
We also know that Trump is inclined to listen to people with serious conflicts of interest rather than experts in the U.S. government. Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine, was smeared by a corrupt Ukrainian official, Yuri Lutsenko, based on Lutsenko’s personal antipathy toward her. Trump relied on information from his personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, and Giuliani’s associate Lev Parnas to get her recalled, instead of relying on U.S. government personnel to fact-check these claims.
You don’t have to have our experience working in counterintelligence and national security to read this for what it is: Trump got played by a foreign smear campaign. He looks like an easy target, and it’s difficult, if not impossible, for actual experts to get him to listen to accurate, credible information.
Now every U.S. government official at home and abroad has good reason to believe that if they do their jobs on key issues like anti-corruption — and upset a foreign official who finds their way to Giuliani — they could be fired, threatened or both. This could lead people to reconsider how hard they work on what used to be key U.S. national security goals like rooting out actual corruption.
Trump had trashed the intelligence community well before the impeachment inquiry started. Now, as he and his surrogates repeat their talking points on Ukraine and the 2016 election, they are continuing to deny the findings of intelligence experts. The first day of Trump’s defense in the trial largely centered on narratives that intelligence authorities have flagged as Russian propaganda. Combating Russian disinformation is a lot harder when the president knowingly repeats it. This has near-term implications for fighting Russian influence operations within the United States: When Trump amplifies Russia’s talking points, they spread like wildfire. But more strategically, this signals that the president and his supporters will disregard clear warnings about advancing Russian interests in pursuit of their own political objectives.
Trump has also diminished the capacity of the FBI to identify and investigate possible attempts to solicit foreign campaign assistance. The FBI has a duty to investigate any violations of federal law, and it will continue to take this responsibility seriously. But under the leadership of Attorney General William P. Barr — who has already concluded that the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in 2016 amounted to “spying” — the agency would find more barriers in its way if an attack happened again. Barr testified to Congress in May 2019 that foreign election interference would require FBI involvement only if it came directly from the intelligence arm of a foreign nation.
His view has been reflected in the actions he has taken in the Ukraine scandal. Under his leadership, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel drafted a legal rationale in an attempt to prevent the whistleblower complaint about Trump’s actions from reaching Congress, as required by law, and didn’t find Trump’s conduct worthy of even a preliminary criminal investigation. Given these signals — and reeling from accusations of political bias in its 2016 investigation — the FBI will be cautious, at best, and could be prohibited, at worst, from digging into the matter further.
Finally, Trump has escalated the risk of speaking out against wrongdoing in this administration. Public servants like the whistleblower, who brought the president’s July 25 call with Zelensky to light, followed legally protected processes for reporting alleged wrongdoing, and they’ve been pilloried by the right. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and State Department officials David Holmes, Yovanovitch and others performed their constitutional duty and testified under oath in front of Congress — and their names have been dragged through the mud. Speaking truth through established, legally protected channels now comes at a great personal cost. This is a disincentive to speak up, silencing a necessary stopgap against government misconduct.
It’s now clear, just months before the next election, that there’s no cost to getting help from outside powers. The investigation that Trump sought into former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter never materialized, but if Trump’s impeachment ends in an acquittal, he will still have gotten a significant win: Trump, his defense team and his enablers in Congress have crushed the U.S. government’s ability to confront foreign election interference. Trump’s defense against impeachment serves as a call to action for foreign interference. Voters’ own ability to determine the outcome of our elections has been seriously degraded by the man who should be focused on securing them.