Having exploited foreign assistance in 2016 and gotten away with it, the president is already trying it again in the 2020 race.
“I’m actually a very honest guy,” Donald Trump told George Stephanopoulos in an interview aired Monday. And while that claim holds no water in general, Trump was jarringly honest on one topic: his willingness to welcome foreign interference in the 2020 election.
“It’s not an interference, they have information—I think I’d take it,” Trump said. “If I thought there was something wrong, I’d go maybe to the FBI—if I thought there was something wrong. But when somebody comes up with oppo research, right, they come up with oppo research, ‘Oh let’s call the FBI.’ The FBI doesn’t have enough agents to take care of it.”
There are several plausible ways to interpret this. One, as my colleague David Frum shows, is as an astonishing confession. Another, laid out by my colleague Peter Nicholas, is that Trump has completely failed to learn the lessons of the 2016 campaign.
Trump’s declaration, though, is neither especially surprising nor especially irrational. While the president has paid hefty political penalties for his behavior during the 2016 election, and while his latest comments will only stoke the fervor for impeachment among Democrats, the fact remains that the Trump campaign profited from foreign interference in 2016. It did not rebuff explicit offers of assistance from Russia, and capitalized on the roundabout assistance Russia’s release of hacked material provided. Whatever collateral damage Trump has received since the election, Russia’s interference helped him pull off a shocking upset victory in November 2016, and he’s so far escaped serious personal consequences for exploiting that aid.
It’s no surprise, then, that Trump would not foreswear a tactic that worked for him then. Rather, every indication is that the president’s electoral behavior will be worse in 2020, and there will be fewer constraints on him.
First, as the interview with Stephanopoulos showed, Trump is effectively already actively soliciting foreign assistance in 2020. In the 2016 race, he was a long-shot candidate, and Russia took a serious risk by aggressively helping him. That bet paid off with Trump’s win, and the divisions in America that have followed; the repercussions for Russia have been relatively minor, and the president himself refuses to blame the Kremlin.
Trump openly telling Stephanopoulos he’d look at help and not report it to the FBI is as good as a request for bids. Where before many foreigners viewed him as an uncouth businessman with no chance at the Oval Office, Trump is now the president of the United States and he’s offering a simple way to curry favor with him. He’s also promising he won’t take any concerns to law enforcement.
Thursday morning, as the backlash to his comments gathered force, Trump argued his comments had been misconstrued. “I meet and talk to ‘foreign governments’ every day,” he tweeted. “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!’ Should I immediately call the FBI about these calls and meetings?”
That’s a red herring. Trump is either unable to tell the difference between diplomatic conversations in his capacity as head of government and electoral interference by the intelligence agencies of a hostile foreign power, or he is unwilling to do so. This fits with a pattern of Trump conflating the national interest with his own personal interests.
There’s no need to deal in hypotheticals: Not only would Trump hear out foreign countries offering aid, he’s arguably already doing so. In May, The Washington Post reported, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani—who has been seeking to dig up damaging information about the Biden family—met in New York with a former Ukrainian diplomat who has made unsubstantiated allegations against the Democratic National Committee. Sub in Donald Trump Jr. for Giuliani and Russia for Ukraine, and it’s a rerun of the notorious June 2016 Trump Tower meeting. The Trump campaign is returning to the same playbook. Giuliani also planned a trip to Ukraine, before cancelling it over objections from the State Department, according to the Post.
And Trump can now run that playbook without as much fear of repercussion. The president’s understanding of the FBI is peculiar. He reacted strongly when Stephanopoulos asked him about the agency, offering a mob-style revulsion to snitching: “I don't think in my whole life I've ever called the FBI. In my whole life. You don’t call the FBI.” This disdainful attitude toward federal law enforcement is especially strange given that Trump is now the nation’s top law-enforcement officer. (It’s also bizarre given that in 1981, Trump offered to “fully cooperate” with the Bureau.)
In other ways, however, Trump is happy to flex his power over the executive branch. After years of demanding it, Trump now has an attorney general who has launched an investigation the origin of the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Trump has also given Barr wide latitude to declassify intelligence, and the Justice Department is seeking to question officials at the CIA. Trump has also repeatedly personally attacked Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, FBI officials involved in that investigation. The effect of the president’s rhetoric and the investigation will be to put any federal law-enforcement or intelligence official who might dare to object to or probe foreign interference in 2020 on notice. At best, they would face the risk of being called in front of an inquisition; at worst, the president might be airing their personal lives on his Twitter feed.
The major remaining constraint on foreign interference now is that any foreign actor might worry about helping Trump only to see him lose—in the process, alienating an incoming administration.
Trump’s comments to Stephanopoulos underscore what ought to be obvious by now. The president isn’t interested in a fair election, and he’s not interested in legality. He’s only interested in winning. If that requires foreign interference, so be it.