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Politics

Trump hit with bipartisan criticism for welcoming foreign help in 2020 election

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President Trump during a back-and-forth with reporters on the South Lawn of White House earlier this week.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

President Trump, after two years of hammering home a simple, powerful defense — “no collusion!” — came under bipartisan fire Thursday after he said he would gladly “listen” if a foreign government offered him dirt on a political opponent, and asserted there would be nothing wrong with doing so.

The president’s defiant comments in a television interview suggest special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s final report — which found “sweeping and systematic” Russian interference in the 2016 election aimed at helping Trump win — did not so much chasten Trump as embolden him.

National security veterans warned that Trump’s cavalier attitude all but invited foreign meddling in the 2020 race, raising the stakes as election officials and campaigns worry about sophisticated “deep fake” videos and other disinformation aimed at influencing voters.

“Every hostile intelligence service in the world is listening to that,” said Robert Anderson, a former assistant director of the FBI’s counterintelligence division. “Forget Russia, it’s everybody. It’s China, it’s Iran.”

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The president’s stated willingness to accept foreign help in an election set off a cascade of criticism Thursday, spurring fresh Democratic calls for impeachment and some Republican expressions of concern, if not condemnation. Under federal law, foreigners are barred from donating money or making gifts to influence U.S. elections.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said Trump’s comments “show he does not know the difference between right and wrong, and that’s probably the nicest thing I could say about him.”

Pelosi said the House would introduce legislation to require campaigns to report foreign offers of assistance. But she said she still isn’t ready to call for an impeachment proceeding, reflecting a political calculation that public support is lacking and broader recognition that Trump has shifted public attitudes about acceptable behavior in the Oval Office.

Although Mueller concluded that Trump’s campaign welcomed Russian offers of help in 2016, he did not charge anyone for doing so.

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Trump subsequently embraced Mueller’s 448-page report as a blanket approval for his behavior, which included publicly urging Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails in July 2016. Russian intelligence operatives tried to do just that hours later, according to Mueller’s report.

Trump has ignored or defied traditional ethical guidelines and political norms since he launched his insurgent presidential campaign in 2015. His latest gambit simply shows how little he has changed as he plans to officially kick off his reelection bid next Tuesday at a rally in Florida.

Trump “still thinks of himself as a private billionaire who can act in office the way he did before,” said Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University.

“The only bright line is what you can get away with,” said Gwenda Blair, a Trump biographer who traces Trump’s winner-take-all approach to his family’s business background doing bare-knuckle real estate deals in New York.

“Trump operates in a very narrow and entirely amoral universe,” said Tony Schwartz, ghostwriter of Trump’s breakthrough book, “The Art of the Deal.” “Right is what he believes serves him best. Wrong is anything and anyone who gets in his way. Legality and truthfulness never enter the equation.”

That disdain for outside scrutiny has filtered through the Trump administration, and historians and legal scholars worry it could make a long-term dent in democratic institutions.

The latest evidence came Thursday when the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal agency not connected to Mueller, said one of Trump’s most visible advisors, Kellyanne Conway, should be removed from office for repeatedly violating the Hatch Act, a federal law that bars politicizing the White House.

The office wrote that Conway’s repeated disparaging of Democratic presidential candidates in her official capacity “erode the principal foundation of our democratic system — the rule of law.”

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Rather than acknowledge a problem, Trump’s spokesman called the Office of Special Counsel’s recommendation a violation of Conway’s free speech and blamed “media pressure and liberal organizations” for pressuring the federal agency to target her for practicing standard politics.

That defense echos Trump’s controversial interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos that aired Wednesday night.

Trump likened election help from a foreign government to his own campaign’s opposition research on rival candidates.

“It’s not an interference. They have information — I think I’d take it,” Trump said.

He also said his own FBI director, Christopher A. Wray, was “wrong” when he warned that a candidate should immediately notify the FBI if offered foreign support.

“The FBI doesn’t have enough agents to take care of it,” Trump said. “When you go and talk, honestly, to congressmen, they all do it, they always have, and that’s the way it is. It’s called oppo research.”

Veterans of other presidential campaigns were quick to deny accepting foreign help.

“I did 150 campaigns and did not accept “oppo” from ANY foreign government much less an adversary,” tweeted David Axelrod, chief strategist for President Obama’s two campaigns. “Let’s not pretend this is normal. Or legal. Or right.”

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As his interview dominated news coverage Thursday, Trump tried to reframe his comments in a series of dissembling tweets.

“I meet and talk to ‘foreign governments’ every day. I just met with the Queen of England (U.K.), the Prince of Whales, 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!’” he tweeted. He later deleted that and reposted the remark spelling “Wales” correctly.

“Should I immediately call the FBI about these calls and meetings? How ridiculous! I would never be trusted again. With that being said, my full answer is rarely played by the Fake News Media. They purposely leave out the part that matters,” he added.

ABC subsequently published the interview transcript in full, undercutting the president’s claim that his comment was clipped or edited.

Republicans, as they often have when backed into a corner by Trump, attempted to distance themselves from his comments while also defending him.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who normally is quick to defend Trump, said “it should be practice for all public officials who are contacted by a foreign government with an offer of assistance to their campaign — either directly or indirectly — to inform the FBI and reject the offer.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) argued that Trump, whose administration last year eliminated the position of cybersecurity coordinator on the National Security Council, is taking action to prevent foreign election interference.

“I’ve watched this president. I’ve listened to this president,” he said at a news conference. “He does not want foreign governments interfering in our elections and he’s been very strong about that.”

Trump’s comments were noteworthy given how close Mueller came to charging Trump’s eldest son with a crime for accepting a meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower in New York in June 2016 in hopes of learning incriminating information about Clinton.

Told by an intermediary that the lawyer could provide “very high level and sensitive information” as part of “Russia and its government’s support” for his father, Trump Jr. responded in an email that “If it’s what you say I love it.”

Prosecutors weighed “whether this evidence would establish a conspiracy to violate the foreign contributions ban,” according to the Mueller report, but they decided against bringing charges.

They questioned whether they could prove that participants acted “willfully” — meaning they knew their conduct could break the law, a key threshold for criminal campaign finance violations — or whether the promised derogatory information could be shown as a “thing of value” that constituted an election-related contribution.

Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor who tracks campaign finance issues, said it was “mind-boggling” that Trump said he might do the same thing that nearly led to criminal charges against his son.

“I can’t believe he actually said that,” she said. “He’s knocking on the door of a federal indictment, and then essentially trying to push the door open and run through.”

Times staff writer Jennifer Haberkorn contributed to this report.

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