Slumping in the polls and at war with his political rivals, President Trump has signaled a willingness to act with impunity in his drive for reelection, taking steps over the past week that demonstrate a disregard for legal boundaries meant to hold him accountable and protect the sanctity of American democracy.
Trump said in an interview that he would accept damaging information on his election opponents from foreign entities, defiantly unrepentant after spending 2½ years trying to fight off allegations that his 2016 campaign had colluded with Russia to help him win the White House.
The president declared he would not punish White House counselor Kellyanne Conway after a federal agency recommended she be fired for violating rules barring executive branch officials from engaging in political activities.
The White House asserted executive privilege in a bid to shield documents from Congress over the administration’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, prompting lawmakers to hold two Trump Cabinet officials in contempt.
Taken together, the actions set off new alarm bells among legal analysts and Trump’s political rivals who warned that the president and his aides have emerged from the scorched-earth battle over the special counsel’s 22-month investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election with a conviction that they need not feel constrained by the safeguards built into the nation’s political system as they look to 2020.
“We’re at a bad place. They’re emboldened and not trying to hide it anymore,” said Glenn Kirschner, a legal analyst who spent three decades as a federal prosecutor.
Pointing to Trump’s interview with ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos, during which the president said he would “listen” to foreign countries offering damaging information on his general election opponent, Kirschner said the lesson Trump took away from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s 448-page redacted report was that his campaign suffered no consequences for holding meetings with Russian operatives they believed had damaging information about Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Mueller did not establish a criminal conspiracy, even though several Trump associates were indicted on charges of lying to investigators.
“They realized they could get away with it,” Kirschner said. “There’s no accountability.”
Trump sought to do damage control Friday after a political backlash to his remarks, calling in to the sympathetic Fox & Friends show to say he would “look at” information from a foreign entity to determine whether it was “bad” and then turn it over to the FBI or attorney general. It is illegal to accept election assistance from a foreign national, a point that Federal Election Commission Chairman Ellen Weintraub reiterated Thursday in the wake of the outcry over Trump’s position.
But the president’s equivocations over how he would handle such a scenario were echoed by his campaign, which spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said would assess the matter 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,” McEnany told CBSN, calling it the president’s “directive.”
Trump supporters said his political rivals have fanned a faux controversy as part of an ongoing effort to make the election a referendum on his conduct and intemperate behavior rather than a contest of policy ideas.
“I’m not sure some of these side excursions resonate in Iowa,” said Jeff Kaufmann, the chairman of the Iowa Republican Party who warmed up the crowd at a GOP fundraising dinner Trump attended last week. “I don’t think a successful Democratic campaign would be one that focuses on Mueller or one particular tweet. I don’t think that is going to work.”
He added: “I really think of the old phrase, ‘It might not be good to drink water out of a fire hose.’ Democrats have created so many avenues of criticism, everything becomes a bit of a blur.”
Republican leaders have offered a mixed response, with many stating that, despite Trump’s contention that all members of Congress “do it,” they would unequivocally reject information offered by foreign entities. But some also joined Trump and his campaign by attempting to shift the focus on the fact that Democrats financed the work of a former British intelligence officer who compiled a dossier about Trump and his alleged ties to Russia.
Trump’s brazen posture has contributed to hand-wringing among Democrats about the rules of combat in 2020.
Sue Dvorsky, a former chairwoman of the Iowa Democratic Party, described Trump as a “human flash-bang grenade” and said everybody in the party is wrestling with the question of not just how to go at Trump but how the rules of political warfare in general have changed. The debate centers on how the party competes with a sitting president who so openly flouts the norms of political conduct and ethics and whether Democrats should consider doing the same.
In fact, nearly all the 2020 Democratic campaigns have agreed verbally not to use stolen or hacked material in the race in recent weeks. But most candidates have not signed a written pledge circulated by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), who is one of 23 Democratic candidates.
“We’re not going to be able to put somebody up on the stage with him and beat him at his own game,” Dvorsky said. “There are no rules to his own game. We’re not getting in a ring with some sort of antiquated, Marquess of Queensberry rules. This guy is a WWE fighter.”
Trump has demonstrated time and again his willingness to go to the mat to protect his interests and allies. In response to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel’s finding last week that Conway had on several occasions violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits most presidential aides from engaging in political activities, Trump defended her as a “terrific person” and suggested she was the aggrieved party.
“It looks to me like they’re trying to take away their right of free speech. And that’s just not fair,” Trump told “Fox and Friends” of Conway, a ferocious campaign aide in 2016 who became one of his longest-serving White House advisers. “She’s got to have the right of responding to questions” from reporters.
The White House also has sought to prevent former Trump aides and government officials from cooperating with congressional probes into Russian interference, the president’s tax returns and the administration’s efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, which Democrats have said could lead to inaccurate results.
Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN, a liberal think tank, said Trump is acting out of desperation to fundamentally change the political landscape in hopes of improving his poll numbers.
Last week, ABC News reported that Trump’s internal polling data from March showed him trailing former vice president Joe Biden in the key swing states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida, and running just barely ahead in Texas. Trump campaign officials said the data was outdated and misleading, based on worst-case scenarios, and that more recent surveys that added descriptions of policies have had better results for the president, although that data has not been made public.
“When a candidate is in trouble, they start to look to do extraordinary things,” Rosenberg said. “This is an extraordinary challenge to our democracy. The president is operating as if the rule of law is for little people and for big people like him, it doesn’t apply.”