President Donald Trump on Thursday defended his willingness to accept campaign help from Russia or other foreign governments by equating it to the sort of diplomatic meetings he holds with world leaders as the nation's chief executive.
In an interview broadcast Wednesday night (US time), Trump had rejected his own FBI director's recommendation that candidates call authorities if foreign governments seek to influence US elections, saying he would gladly take incriminating information about a campaign opponent from adversaries like Russia.
"I meet and talk to 'foreign governments' every day," he wrote Thursday on Twitter. "I just met with the Queen of England (UK), the Prince of Whales, the P.M. of the United Kingdom, the PM of Ireland, the President of France and the President of Poland. We talked about 'Everything!'" he added, misspelling the title of Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, before fixing and reposting it.
"Should I immediately call the FBI about these calls and meetings?" he continued. "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."
The comparison was startling even for Trump. Having tea with the queen of England is hardly the same as taking clandestine help from agents of President Vladimir Putin as part of a concerted campaign by Russian intelligence to tilt a U.S. presidential election.
US law makes it a crime for a candidate to accept money or anything of value from foreign governments or citizens for purposes of winning an election. Many lawyers argued about whether incriminating information, as Trump's campaign in 2016 agreed to take from the Russian government, would qualify as a thing of value.
In the end, Robert Mueller, the special counsel, said in his recent report that he could not establish an illegal conspiracy between Trump's campaign and Russia to influence the election. But his report documented numerous contacts between the two camps and concluded that Trump benefited from Moscow's efforts to help elect him.
In his interview with ABC News aired Wednesday, Trump said he saw nothing inherently wrong with taking damaging information about a campaign opponent and would not necessarily call the FBI, as the bureau's director, Christopher A. Wray, a Trump appointee, said campaigns should do.
"It's not an interference," Trump told ABC's George Stephanopoulos, describing it as opposition research like any other generated or accepted by political campaigns. "They have information — I think I'd take it." He would call the FBI only "if I thought there was something wrong."
He scoffed at the idea of calling the FBI. "Give me a break — life doesn't work that way," he said. When Stephanopoulos noted the FBI director said a candidate should inform the bureau, Trump snapped, "the FBI director is wrong."
Trump says 'I'd take it' if Russia again offered dirt on opponent
Democrats criticized Trump's comments Thursday, saying he had taken no lessons from the 2016 experience and seemed even now to be inviting the help of Russia and other foreign powers as he campaigns for re-election in 2020.
"Yesterday, the president gave us, once again, evidence that he does not know right from wrong," Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters. She added: "I believe that he's been involved in a criminal cover-up."
Pelosi said Democrats would advance legislation intended to make it a legal requirement for candidates to report to law enforcement authorities any effort by foreign governments to influence US elections. She and other Democrats said it should not be necessary to write that into law, but Trump's comments made clear there was no choice.
"The president has either learned nothing from the last two years or picked up exactly the wrong lesson that he can accept gleefully foreign assistance again and escape the punishment of the law," Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told reporters.
"There is no claiming ignorance of the law anymore," he added. "Foreign adversaries pay attention to every word the president of the United States has to say."
Schiff and other Democrats compared the latest comments to Trump's public remarks during the campaign when he said, "Russia, if you are listening," it should find and publish Hillary Clinton's emails. While Trump later said he was just joking, Mueller's investigators reported that Russian agents tried to do just that hours later.
"The message he seems to be sending now is as long as a foreign power wants to help his campaign, they can count on him having the good discretion not to alert his FBI about it," Schiff said. "It is just dangerous, appalling, unethical, unpatriotic — you name it."
Schiff said that Democrats were working on legislation that would define receiving foreign assistance to more clearly prohibit using foreign opposition research, or "dirt," in a federal campaign.
Republicans were silent on the matter Thursday morning. One of the few who spoke out was Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a close ally of the president.
"I believe that 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," he said in a statement.
But he tried to turn the tables on the Democrats by pointing to their use of information gathered about Trump during the 2016 campaign by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer who produced a dossier of reports and rumours about Trump's ties to Russia.
"The outrage some of my Democratic colleagues are raising about President Trump's comments will hopefully be met with equal outrage that their own party hired a foreign national to do opposition research on President Trump's campaign and that information, unverified, was apparently used by the FBI to obtain a warrant against an American citizen," Graham said.
The president's interview came on the same day that his son Donald Trump Jr. appeared on Capitol Hill to answer questions from lawmakers. During the 2016 campaign, the younger Trump — along with Jared Kushner, the future president's son-in-law, and Paul Manafort, then his campaign chairman — met with a Kremlin-connected lawyer after being told she would have "dirt" on Clinton as "part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump."
Written by: Peter Baker and Nicholas Fandos
Photographs by:Doug Mills
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