The president of the United States said Wednesday that he might solicit foreign assistance in the 2020 election, despite dealing with an investigation into his acceptance of it in 2016 and U.S. laws aimed at preventing just such a scenario.
President Trump’s comment came in an interview with ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos. Stephanopoulos asked him whether he would accept opposition research from another country such as China or Russia. (Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., was ready to accept such information from Russia in 2016.)
Trump said he would likely entertain the information and then tell the FBI if he felt something was amiss.
"I think you might want to listen; there isn’t anything wrong with listening,” Trump said. “If somebody called from a country — Norway — [and said,] ‘We have information on your opponent?’ Oh, I think I’d want to hear it.”
Trump added: “It’s not an interference. They have information — I think I’d take it.” He then added: “If I thought there was something wrong, I’d go maybe to the FBI — if I thought there was something wrong.”
It was not clear what Trump thought might be “wrong” with such information. And Trump offered two reasons for why he might not go to the FBI — because it supposedly “doesn’t have enough agents to take care of it” and that if, “you go and talk, honestly, to congressmen, they all do it.”
First off, there is no evidence that “all” members of Congress accept opposition research from foreigners, or even that many do. Opposition research is essentially derogatory information about opponents that can be used to discredit them and ultimately (hopefully) defeat them in an election. Campaigns conduct opposition research on their own and pay for others to conduct it, as the Hillary Clinton campaign did in 2016 with Fusion GPS. Pretty much every campaign does some version of opposition research.
But evidence that it comes from foreign sources is rare. And if it were proven or even just substantiated, that fact would undoubtedly be used against the candidates who accepted it.
And/or prosecuted. It’s worth emphasizing that U.S. law aims to prevent just such a situation as Trump describes. While special counsel Robert S. Mueller III concluded that Trump and his campaign did not actively engage in a conspiracy to work with the Russian government in 2016, the legal code clearly seeks to prevent foreign influence.
Specifically, foreign nationals are not allowed to contribute money or things “of value” to campaigns, nor are Americans allowed to solicit such things. Here’s the applicable section of U.S. law:
It shall be unlawful for . . . a person to solicit, accept, or receive a contribution or donation described in subparagraph (A) or (B) of paragraph (1) from a foreign national.
Subparagraph A describes “a contribution or donation of money or other thing of value . . . in connection with a Federal, State, or local election.”
“The statute’s written very, very broadly,” Bob Bauer, a former White House counsel under Barack Obama, told my colleague Philip Bump last year. “It applies to promises of support — promises express or implied. It applies to independent expenditures, meaning those with express advocacy. It applies to any expenditure, meaning those that may not be express advocacy expenditures but are for the purpose of influencing the federal election. It applies to disbursements. It is extremely broad.”
Mueller opted not to charge Trump Jr. for accepting a meeting in which he expected to receive opposition research on Clinton and the Democrats from a Russian lawyer in 2016. But it was not because there was nothing potentially wrong with this; it was because Mueller decided it was unlikely that it could be proven Trump Jr. knew that it was illegal and/or that the information was something “of value” — a key clause in the above legal code. Trump Jr. has always maintained that the information offered by a Kremlin-tied lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, was useless.
And even on the latter count, Mueller acknowledged there were "reasonable arguments” that it was a thing of value. Here’s that key section of his report:
There are reasonable arguments that the offered information would constitute a “thing of value” within the meaning of these provisions, but the Office determined that the government would not be likely to obtain and sustain a conviction for two other reasons: first, the Office did not obtain admissible evidence likely to meet the government’s burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that these individuals acted “willfully,” i.e., with general knowledge of the illegality of their conduct; and, second, the government would likely encounter difficulty in proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the value of the promised information exceeded the threshold for a criminal violation. . . .
Fast forward to today. Even if Trump Jr. was ignorant of the law, that defense doesn’t really fly with his father today — not after a two-year investigation probing exactly that issue. So if Trump accepted opposition research, be it from Norway or anyplace else, and the information actually proved useful, that would seem very likely to be a violation of U.S. law.
And Trump just came out and said he would be interested in that.
Update: Trump is now attempting to clean up his comments. He suggests he has been taken out of context, despite the full exchange being aired. He also suggests accepting opposition research from foreigners is somehow akin to simply meeting with foreign leaders.