It has now been two days since President Trump declared that he might accept dirt on political opponents from foreign governments in the 2020 presidential election. He did so despite the fact that such a move appears likely to be illegal and that the chairwoman of the Federal Election Commission confirmed it would be.
But Republicans keep finding creative ways to defend Trump’s comment.
The initial argument wasn’t so much a defense of Trump as it was “Democrats did it, too!” Republicans tried to argue that Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016 essentially did what Trump was saying by hiring Fusion GPS, which paid for the Steele dossier — a document compiled by a former British intelligence agent who relied upon sources from within the Russian government. As we’ve noted, that argument doesn’t make much sense. And in fact, even the Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee confirmed in their 2018 report that the arrangement was legal, as long as the information was paid for at market rate. Steele shared his reports with federal law enforcement officials.
But Republicans have increasingly expanded their defenses to suggest that some version of what Trump said might be okay.
Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), who is one of those House Intelligence Committee Republicans, appeared on CNN on Friday morning. And while he said he wished Trump would “not have said it the way he did,” he also suggested the context matters.
“It depends on who it is and the circumstances and how credible it is,” Stewart said. “There might be valuable information that comes from one of our allies. If they look at it, and it’s credible, I think it would be foolish not to take that information.”
But this ignores the context of the question. The question isn’t whether the U.S. government should ever take information from foreign governments — it does so all the time via intelligence-sharing agreements with allies — but rather whether a campaign should accept information directly intended to damage another candidate. Stewart also suggests the veracity of the information is important, but opposition research need not be false to be problematic.
Stewart’s argument echoes the specious one Trump made on Twitter on Thursday, when he likened accepting dirt from foreign governments to simply meeting with foreign dignitaries, like the queen of England. “I meet and talk to ‘foreign governments’ every day,” Trump said. “Should I immediately . . . call the FBI about these calls and meetings? How ridiculous!” It is ridiculous, because it’s a completely different situation that has nothing to do with opposition research aimed at influencing elections.
“Fox & Friends” host Steve Doocy also offered a particularly novel argument on Friday morning. While interviewing Trump, Doocy suggested that Trump might be attacked for going to the FBI with such information.
“Wouldn’t the Democrats accuse you of using the FBI to investigate political opponents?” Doocy asked Trump.
The argument was such a non sequitur that Trump didn’t really even seize upon it. The point of going to the FBI when offered dirt by a foreign government is not that the information would suddenly be investigated by the FBI; it would be because it is illegal for foreign governments to offer such information. If a country wanted to air a politician’s dirty laundry, there is nothing stopping them from doing it publicly. Sending it to a campaign means they could surreptitiously affect an election — and even compromise a U.S. politician.