President Trump on Thursday tried to contain an uproar he sparked by expressing his openness to accepting opposition research from a foreign government — a furor that Democrats said invited further interference in U.S. elections and one that Republicans declined to defend.
In a string of tweets, Trump stood by his comments, saying he communicates with “foreign governments” every day to rationalize his contention during an ABC News interview that it wasn’t always necessary to notify the FBI if a foreign government offers dirt about political opponents.
“I just met with the Queen of England (U.K.), the Prince of Wales, the P.M. of the United Kingdom, the P.M. of Ireland, the President of France and the President of Poland. We talked about ‘Everything!’ ” Trump tweeted Thursday, even though he was asked specifically about opposition research. “Should I immediately call the FBI about these calls and meetings? How ridiculous! I would never be trusted again.”
Trump also suggested that his response to anchor George Stephanopoulos’s question had been truncated when it was broadcast, while his aides and close allies tried to deflect the focus to Democrats.
Some Republicans also reached out privately to Trump, with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), saying he explained to the president under what circumstances a campaign should report outreach from foreign entities to the FBI — namely, when someone abroad was offering something valuable that “you think is inappropriate.”
But that wasn’t enough to tamp down the outcry from Capitol Hill, as top Democrats accused Trump of having learned nothing from the nearly two-year investigation by former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into Russian interference in the 2016 elections. Some Democratic lawmakers suggested his comments were fresh grounds for impeachment, although House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) stopped far short of that view.
“The president gave us evidence once again he does not know right from wrong,” Pelosi said. “It’s a very sad thing.”
She said that “everybody in the country should be totally appalled” and characterized Trump’s remarks during the interview as “so against any sense of decency.” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) echoed Pelosi, calling Trump’s comments “disgraceful” and “shocking.”
Trump comment’s also drew widepread condemnation from Democratic presidential candidates, including former vice president Joe Biden, who has been leading in early polling. On Friday morning, he tweeted a video of himself signing an international pledge not to use disinformation in campaigns.
“This is simple. American elections should be decided by the American people and not by Russian or any other foreign power,” Biden said.
The response from Republicans was far more muted, as several GOP lawmakers distanced themselves from Trump’s contention that accepting information on a political rival from foreign governments was commonplace. They stressed that they themselves would report any such communication to the FBI.
“We know we shouldn’t tolerate any foreign intervention in American elections,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (S.D.), the second-ranking Senate Republican. “Period.”
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), the Republican Party’s 2012 presidential candidate, said Trump’s remarks were “not a great choice of words,” nor was it clear, Romney said, what Trump was referring to.
“Let’s distinguish between a foreign official making an offhand comment at a dinner about the campaign versus a foreign government trying to influence an election,” Romney said. “In the latter case, that would be unthinkable, it would be totally inappropriate, and it would strike at the heart of our democracy.”
“I’ve run for Senate twice, I’ve run for governor once, I’ve run for president twice,” Romney continued. “So far as I know, we never received any information from any foreign government, and had we received any information particularly from a hostile government, we would’ve immediately informed the FBI.”
Yet several Republicans suggested that the president’s critics were hypocritical, pointing to research into Trump’s ties to Russia by a former British intelligence officer who was funded by a law firm working for the campaign of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016.
The former officer, Christopher Steele, spoke with Russian government officials about what Trump and his campaign might have done, and he eventually shared his reports with federal law enforcement officials.
“I think we need to be extra careful because obviously there are foreign countries that are interested in influencing our elections,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), arguing that Trump’s remarks tread into “dangerous territory.” “We saw that in the Clinton example, and I think it could happen again with who knows what consequences.”
Amid the exasperated reactions Thursday, House Democrats prepared to mount a legislative response — one that had been in the works for months, following completion of the Mueller report, but gained new resonance with Trump’s comments.
The effort, described by three Democrats familiar with internal discussions, will combine public hearings on election security with legislation that would, among other things, bar political campaigns from sharing private material with foreign governments, require them to report offers of foreign help, and clarify that it is illegal to seek to influence U.S. elections by conspiring with foreign nationals.
On Thursday afternoon, Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, tried to swiftly pass a bill requiring candidates to report attempts of foreign interference in elections — but was promptly blocked by Republicans, led by Sen. Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.), who complained the legislation was too broad.
During the ABC interview, Trump said he wouldn’t necessarily alert the FBI if a foreign country approached his campaign with “oppo research” about his Democratic challenger. FBI Director Christopher A. Wray has publicly advocated for notifying the FBI in such cases.
An FBI spokeswoman declined on Thursday to comment on the president’s remarks. Wray has tried to avoid being drawn into any public back-and-forth with the president and has generally tried to keep a low profile as Congress and the White House have pressed the FBI over politically sensitive investigations.
Trump also dismissed the idea that his son, Donald Trump Jr., should have told the FBI about his 2016 contacts with Russians, including the Trump Tower meeting that the younger Trump hosted after being promised damaging information about Clinton as part of a Russian government effort to help his father’s campaign.
And other Republican lawmakers on Thursday dismissed the furor over Trump’s remarks as overblown.
“That was a hypothetical, and I think it’s an overreaction to the whole thing,” Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) said. “What we do know is that Russia tried to screw with social media during the election, and that’s what we ought to be talking about.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), one of Trump’s closest allies in Congress, told reporters that he would inform the authorities if a foreign government offered him campaign donations. McCarthy also said Republicans would back Democratic bills aimed at creating a “duty to report” any such offer to the FBI.
But McCarthy refused multiple times to say Trump was wrong in suggesting it would be okay to accept help from a foreign government. He also noted that the Russians that met with members of the Trump campaign had not followed through with a promise of damaging information on Clinton.
“When he was approached by this, he did what was right,” McCarthy said. “I know this president would not want any foreign government interfering in this election.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said he was concerned that the U.S. political system is unprepared for a systemic disinformation campaign from abroad, particularly ahead of the 2020 elections. He warned of interference not just from Russia but China as well.
Noting that he declined to comment on the hacked emails from the Clinton campaign in October 2016, Rubio added: “I was criticized for it by some in my party. I said I wouldn’t discuss it because they were the work of a foreign intelligence agency. So I would hope more people would say that. The president, but others. Everyone.”
Mike DeBonis, Rachael Bade, Devlin Barrett, Tom Hamburger, Colby Itkowitz and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.