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‘Absolutely unprecedented’: Trump upends long-held views with openness to foreign assistance

President Trump, shown above Thursday at the White House, said in an interview with ABC News that if a foreign government offered him information on a political opponent, “I think I’d want to hear it.” (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

With his declared willingness to accept help from a foreign government in an election, President Trump upended long-held views that such outside assistance is anathema in American campaigns, both because of laws prohibiting foreign contributions and widely embraced norms of fair play.

Trump blew through those notions this week, telling ABC News that if a foreign government offered him information on a political opponent, “I think I’d want to hear it.”

“It’s not an interference; they have information — I think I’d take it,” he continued. “If I thought there was something wrong, I’d go maybe to the FBI, if I thought there was something wrong.”

He added that his own FBI director, Christopher A. Wray, was “wrong” when he said during congressional testimony that campaign aides should always report offers of assistance from foreign entities to the bureau.

Trump’s comments came less than two weeks after his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, said he wasn’t sure if he would report a future offer of foreign assistance to the FBI, calling questions regarding it “hypotheticals.” And Trump’s personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, has been openly gathering information in recent weeks from Ukrainian officials that he says he hopes could be used in a 2020 race against former vice president Joe Biden, whose son Hunter sat on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.

“There’s nothing illegal about it,” said Giuliani, who canceled an information-gathering trip to Kiev after public criticism. “Somebody could say it’s improper.”

Trump says he’d consider accepting information from foreign governments on his opponents

It is illegal to accept a campaign contribution from a foreign national, though there is debate over the extent to which information, rather than money, can be counted as such a contribution. It is also illegal to conspire with a foreign government to affect a U.S. election by breaking other laws, such as stealing documents or acting as an agent of a foreign government without registering with the U.S. government.

Over the past two years, members of the Trump campaign have repeatedly minimized the impact of Russian election interference. (Video: REF:riegerj/The Washington Post)

Legal experts said the attitude of Trump and his allies toward foreign election assistance could hurt national security by depriving law enforcement of tips about foreign interference in U.S. affairs — such as Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 campaign.

The president’s comments — an echo of his 2016 “Russia, are you listening?” request for help finding Hillary Clinton’s emails — could also serve as a message to foreign governments that their assistance would be welcomed, not punished, by the commander in chief, they said.

“It’s critical when any candidate receives offers of assistance from foreign powers, that they should report. If they don’t, our law enforcement and intelligence community is deprived of key leads that would help them address potential election interference,” said Jennifer Daskal, a former senior Justice Department official who now teaches law at American University.

On Capitol Hill, Trump’s comments drew outrage from Democrats, who called for the passage of legislation requiring candidates to report offers of foreign help in elections.

While some Republicans emphasized that they would notify the FBI if approached by foreign entities offering opposition research, they also sought to highlight the fact that Democrats financed the work of former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, who compiled a dossier about Trump and his alleged ties to Russia.

Kayleigh McEnany, a spokeswoman for Trump’s reelection campaign, told CBSN’s “Red & Blue” Thursday night that the campaign viewed the president’s words as a “directive” to deal with offers of foreign assistance on a “case-by-case basis.”

“He said he would likely do both: Listen to what they have to say, but also report it to the FBI,” she said.

Candidates have historically shied away from foreign associations, governed in part by federal election law, which prohibits foreign nationals from contributing to U.S. campaigns or making election expenditures. Those restrictions are built on a long-standing principle, dating back to the country’s founding, that elections should be free from foreign influence, historians said.

Democrats rebuke Trump for saying he would consider taking foreign opposition research

George Washington, the nation’s first president, warned of the “insidious wiles of foreign influence” as he left office in 1796.

“The jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government,” he said.

Founder Alexander Hamilton was specifically worried about a foreign power’s effort to cultivate a president or other top official, warning in the Federalist Papers of “the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils.”

While the Russian government interfered in the election in a “sweeping and systematic fashion,” including by breaking U.S. laws, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III found, he could not establish that anyone associated with Trump criminally conspired in those efforts.

He also analyzed whether prosecutors could argue that Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer, who he was told had damaging information about Clinton, amounted to acceptance of an illegal in-kind campaign contribution.

Mueller found that a foreign entity that provided free opposition research to a campaign about an opponent could exert a “greater effect on an election, and a greater tendency to ingratiate the donor to the candidate.”

Still, Mueller wrote that no judicial decision had ever treated the “voluntary provision of uncompensated opposition research” as a thing of value akin to a campaign contribution. He said it was “uncertain” how a judge would view that contention and worried it could have free-speech implications, particularly if the information amounted to the recitation of accurate facts.

That view has been rejected by some campaign finance lawyers, who argued courts have ruled in other settings that a contribution can be a thing of intangible value rather than just money and who worried that Mueller’s analysis had opened the door to a new attitude that foreign assistance is acceptable.

“A contribution is anything of value. Opposition research is clearly something of value,” said Larry Noble, a former general counsel at the Federal Election Commission. “If a campaign tells a foreign government it would accept opposition research they’ve gathered, it is soliciting a foreign contribution, which is illegal. If the campaign accepts the opposition research, it is accepting a prohibited foreign contribution.”

A criminal violation of the foreign contribution ban occurs when a person accepts the illegal donation “knowingly and willfully.” Mueller wrote that it would be difficult to prove that Trump Jr. took the meeting with the Russian lawyer knowing it was illegal.

Trevor Potter, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission who has advised Republican presidential campaigns, said Trump should understand that the Mueller investigation and the experience of the past two years would mean that prosecutors will assume he and his campaign aides now understand the law and would be more likely to assess that any violations of the foreign contribution ban in the future were made knowingly.

One close adviser to the White House said there were two key reasons for Trump’s comments: He would never concede that his campaign did anything wrong, and he did not want to implicitly criticize Trump Jr., who had testified on Capitol Hill that day.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said he talked to Trump about his comments Thursday morning and told him he couldn’t take help from a foreign government. Graham said he advised Trump that he would probably be approached by other groups with information, calling it “routine.”

“We need to send clear signals here: If somebody is trying to provide you information from a foreign government, you don’t take it,” he said.

But Graham said he thought Trump had no intention of actually accepting foreign help and instead was trying to convey that he didn’t believe his son did anything wrong.

“He was trying to make a greater point inartfully,” Graham said.

Graham and other Republicans worked to pivot from Trump’s remarks to the dossier commissioned by Democrats from Steele.

“What’s most amazing about the pearl clutching over Trump’s ‘foreign oppo’ comment — we’ve got a complete paper trail of Hillary Clinton and the DNC *paying* for info from Russian agents in 2016,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) tweeted. “But that doesn’t matter, apparently. It’s only a problem when Trump is involved.”

However, it is not illegal for a campaign to pay foreigners market rate for campaign assistance, as in the Steele case. The Trump and Ted Cruz presidential campaigns had contracts with Cambridge Analytica, which has roots in the United Kingdom.

“The Trump campaign could have legally paid a foreign national to collect opposition research on Clinton. That’s why the comparison to the Clinton campaign paying Steele, a foreign national, for investigating Trump and producing the dossier fails,” Noble said.

Steele also repeatedly presented his information to the FBI, insisting that law enforcement needed to be made aware of his findings, a decision some Republicans view skeptically.

Lawrence Jacobs, an expert in presidential power at the University of Minnesota, said the idea that a presidential candidate might openly seek or accept foreign assistance “is absolutely unprecedented.”

“Usually there is a competition among presidential candidates to see who can be toughest on our adversaries,” Jacobs said. “Here, the president is openly welcoming the assistance of foreign powers.”

Still, Jacobs noted there were moments in history in which secret communications with foreign leaders may have provided a benefit to a campaign. For example, he said that there is continued suspicion that Reagan campaign officials communicated with Iranian authorities in 1980 signaling they could get a better deal if they delayed release of American hostages until Jimmy Carter left office.

Stuart Stevens, a longtime Republican campaign strategist who advised five presidential campaigns, said he found Trump’s comments “mind-boggling.” In 2000, Stevens was helping run debate preparation for then-GOP nominee George W. Bush when a campaign aide for Bush’s opponent, Al Gore, anonymously received stolen internal documents from Bush’s campaign. The Gore aide immediately reported the episode to the FBI.

“They handled it completely the way you should handle it,” he said.

Stevens said he worries that Republican candidates, forced to defend Trump, will now believe they too could accept foreign assistance or benefit from stolen material.

“It’s incredibly corrosive,” he said. “I mean, if the president can do it, why can’t everyone do it?”

Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.