WASHINGTON — For President Donald Trump, the special counsel report was supposed to put Russia in his rearview mirror. But with some off-the-cuff remarks in the Oval Office, he has thrust his relationship with Moscow back into the debate over the future of his presidency.
Trump’s defiant declaration that “I’d take it” if Russia again offered campaign help and his assertion that he would not necessarily tell the FBI about it drew bipartisan condemnation on Thursday, fueling calls for legislation requiring candidates to report such offers to authorities and emboldening Democrats seeking his impeachment.
The furor shifted the discussion in Washington away from obstruction of justice and back to the original issue that had dogged Trump since his election in 2016. Although the special counsel Robert Mueller found no illegal conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and Russia, the president’s comments renewed questions about his willingness to profit from the aid of a hostile foreign power.
“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,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
Irritated at what they considered an unnecessary distraction, Republicans, including some of the president’s staunchest supporters, joined in the chorus of criticism. While some sought to turn the tables on Democrats by accusing them of taking foreign help too, Republicans flatly rejected Trump’s insistence that it was acceptable.
“If a public official is approached by a foreign government offering anything of value, the answer is no — whether it be money, opposition research,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a close ally of the president who said he spoke with Trump on Thursday about the matter.
“I wouldn’t do it,” said Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa. “I wouldn’t accept material like that.”
When a reporter noted that Trump said politicians do it all the time, she added firmly, “No, we don’t. Let’s stop there. No, we don’t.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats used the moment to advance legislation to require candidates to report to authorities any effort by foreign governments to influence U.S. elections. But when Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, sought to pass such a bill by unanimous consent Thursday afternoon, Republicans blocked it.
The president’s comments did not change Pelosi’s reluctance to pursue impeachment against Trump. But they did prompt one more Democrat to come out for an impeachment inquiry, Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, who is also running for president. His decision meant that a majority of Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee now publicly support impeachment hearings.
Other Democratic presidential candidates pounced on Trump as well. Former Vice President Joe Biden said a president should not “abet those who seek to undermine democracy.” Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Cory Booker of New Jersey each called Trump’s comments “disgraceful.” And Sen. Kamala Harris of California said the president was “a national security threat.”
The outpouring of criticism was touched off Wednesday when Trump said in an interview with ABC News that he would gladly take incriminating information about a campaign opponent from adversaries like Russia and saw no reason to call the FBI, as the bureau’s director, Christopher A. Wray, a Trump appointee, said campaigns should do.
“I think I’d take it,” Trump told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. He scoffed at the idea of calling the FBI. “Give me a break — life doesn’t work that way,” he said. When Stephanopoulos noted that the FBI director said a candidate should inform the bureau, Trump snapped, “The FBI director is wrong.”
Trump defended himself on Thursday by comparing his willingness to accept campaign help to the sorts of diplomatic meetings he holds regularly with foreign leaders like Queen Elizabeth II of Britain.
“I meet and talk to ‘foreign governments’ every day,” he wrote on Twitter. “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 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.
U.S. law makes it a crime for a candidate to accept money or anything of value from foreign governments or citizens for the 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.
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 Hillary Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
With his latest comments, Democrats said the president was effectively inviting Russia and other powers to intervene in next year’s election, comparing it to Trump’s public remarks during the 2016 campaign when he said, “Russia, if you are listening,” it should find and publish Clinton’s emails. While Trump later said he was only 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.”
Republicans across the board said they would never do what Trump suggested. “Certainly, absolutely not,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. “Just say no. Turn it over,” said Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado. Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina said, “I would go immediately to the authorities, period.”
Yet some Republicans, like Graham, also 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 rumors 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 Republican National Committee issued a statement called “Hypocrisy Alert” accusing Democrats of seeking incriminating information from foreign sources, citing Steele and a Democratic operative who tried to work with Ukrainian officials to expose Manafort’s overseas lobbying activities.
But they are not precise parallels. While many have criticized the veracity of Steele’s dossier and how it was used by Clinton’s campaign or the government, he was not working for a hostile government and he turned over his findings to the FBI.
Likewise, Trump accused Warner and Schiff of double standards, saying that each of them spoke with someone “purporting to be a Russian Operative” about the president. “Did he call the FBI, or even think to call the FBI?” Trump wrote of Schiff. “NO!”
An aide to Warner said the office was uncertain what Trump was referring to. He could have been conflating the senator with Schiff, who in 2017 did take what turned out to be a prank telephone call from two Russians masquerading as a member of the Ukrainian parliament who had compromising information on the president.
Schiff responded in a tweet on Thursday that he had in fact informed the FBI of the outreach, which he believed could aid a House investigation into Russian interference. “When a foreign national offered info relevant to our investigation — not election — we informed the FBI before and after the call,” he wrote, responding to Trump. “It’s called ethics. You should try it.”