In July of 2017, President Trump's superb then-nominee to lead the FBI, Christopher Wray, was fielding Senators' questions during his confirmation hearing. On the issue of foreign interference in US elections, Republican Lindsey Graham -- now the Judiciary Committee's chairman -- asked Wray to take a definitive and explicit stance on how American politicians ought to respond if a foreign entity reaches out with an offer of electoral assistance. Here how that exchange went, as re-shared earlier today by Sen. Graham himself:
I made this point to FBI Director Wray during his confirmation hearings. https://t.co/9ZosfuIzaa— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) June 13, 2019
Graham: “You’re going to be director of the FBI, pal. So here’s what I want you to tell every politician: If you get a call from somebody suggesting that a foreign government wants to help you by disparaging your opponent, tell us all to call the FBI.”
Wray: “To the members of this committee, any threat or effort to interfere with our elections from any nation-state or any nonstate actor is the kind of thing the FBI would want to know.”
Similarly, in Congressional testimony this spring, Attorney General William Barr also agreed that US campaigns should alert authorities if a foreign intelligence service offers dirt on an opponent. Along with the infamous Trump Tower 'attempted collusion' meeting, this guidance serves as the backdrop for comments President Trump made to ABC News in an interview that aired this morning:
EXCLUSIVE: Pres. Trump tells @GStephanopoulos he wouldn't necessarily alert the FBI if approached by foreign figures with information on his 2020 opponent: "It’s not an interference. They have information. I think I’d take it." https://t.co/IAEuspsYHq pic.twitter.com/nKEdBwVdNf— Good Morning America (@GMA) June 13, 2019
The president bounces among several thoughts in this short video, most of which seem to flow from the mention of Donald Trump Jr.'s involvement in the aforementioned encounter with a Russian lawyer in the summer if 2016 (which may have been a trap engineered by a Democratic attack organization). Trump says that he doesn't recall ever calling the FBI in his career, saying that's not how real life works. He doesn't rule out phoning up the Bureau about a foreign offer of negative information on a domestic political opponent, suggesting that perhaps he would both listen to what was proffered and contact the feds. Ultimately he concludes that foreign governments bearing gifts in the form of campaign dirt is not tantamount to "interference," adding, "I think I'd take it." Points for candor, I suppose, but this is not the right answer.
Let's put it this way: If the Chinese government -- exasperated at Trump's hard line trade stance and eager to help a more pliable candidate become president -- hacked Trump's tax returns or business files, and handed them off to, say, Team Biden, how would Trump and Republicans react if that data spilled into the public eye during the 2020 election cycle? Would that count as foreign "interference"? Of course it would. And the GOP would be howling with righteous outrage. The standard for whether or not something is acceptable cannot be whether or not it happens to be beneficial to the party or candidate one supports. And it's not wild speculation to suggest that Trump's musings might be perceived in various capitals around the globe as an invitation for unethical meddling. This is playing with fire.
Yes, there are counterpoints. It's true that the Clinton campaign and DNC quietly paid a foreign spy to ply foreign intelligence contacts for mud on Trump (including what is now suspected to be deliberate Russian disinformation). That mess is under active investigation. It's also true that Clinton campaign proxies and allies worked with a foreign government in hopes of damaging Trump. The Adam Schiff example going around isn't nearly as effective, as he told what turned out to be pranksters dangling scandalous info on Trump that he'd...call the FBI. And objecting that Trump shouldn't trust the FBI ignores the fact that he's installed his own director to lead the agency. The 'best' rebuttal to outrage over Trump's answers to George Stephanopoulos' questions is to say that Democrats have demonstrated a willingness to play with the same fire -- and Trump is just being honest about not unilaterally disarming by renouncing a tactic that others would readily employ against him.
That said, what the Russians did entailed not just social media trolling and astroturf; they hacked emails (bona fide crimes) and deployed their contents strategically. This is undeniable, proactive, intentional meddling, and it cannot be tolerated. Given the wrenching fight over the 2016 cycle, Trump should understand how sensitive this issue is and act accordingly. Doing so involves abandoning the apparent view that any acknowledgement of these realities is some sort of concession about the legitimacy of his own election victory (a mindset that I suspect underpins his stubbornness on these points). It's not. The proper and wise answer is to say that no foreign help is wanted or needed in this regard, and any related attempts to should be rejected and reported by both political parties.
That's not just the correct course of action on substance and principle; it's also the smart play politically. Americans are over the Mueller investigation and strongly oppose impeachment. Trump is presiding over a booming economy, yet his overall approval rating is mired in a serious danger zone for an incumbent. To win re-election next year, he needs to turn out his base in major way, of course, but he also needs to attract voters who like some of his results, but aren't sure they can support him. There are quite a few voters in that column, and it's imperative that the president expand his support. Performances like Trump's Oval Office session with Stephanopoulos will be defended by his hardcore fans, and will draw squeals of fury (some of them exaggerated or hypocritical) from his implacable opponents. But it will also fuel the sense of unease and frustration that many persuadable voters harbor about the president. That's a real problem, and it can't be wished away with sputtering faux indignation or obsequious spin.