President Donald Trump says he might not report to the FBI any election help offered by a foreign source in the 2020 election cycle.
In an excerpt from aninterviewwith ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos published on Wednesday, the president pushed back when asked whether a candidate should report information on an opponent if it came from a foreign agent, and denied that accepting the information counted as election interference.
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“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.”
“It’s called oppo research,” he added.
Stephanopoulos pointed out that FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress that a candidate should offer that kind of information to the agency, but Trump flatly rebuffed the notion: “The FBI director is wrong.”
“Give me a break,” Trump said, scoffing. “Life doesn’t work that way.”
Trump’s comments come as his son Donald Trump Jr. is in hot water over a meeting in Trump Tower in June 2016 with Russian nationals who offered “dirt” on then-Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. The president expressed frustration with the focus on his son, saying he is a “good young man.”
Trump said that if he received information and “thought there was something wrong,” he would consider reporting it to the FBI, but said that “there’s nothing wrong with listening.” He added that members of Congress “all do it.”
Jared Kushner, Trump’s adviser and son-in-law, also said recently that he didn’t know whether he would contact the FBI in such a situation. Axios’ Jonathan Swan asked Kushner in aninterviewpublished earlier this month about an email he received in the lead-up to the Trump Tower meeting and why he did not report the email to the FBI. Kushner responded that he received hundreds of emails a day and forgot about it after showing up to the meeting and realizing that it was “a clown show.”
But when pressed if he would report a similar email to the FBI in the future, Kusher said that “it’s hard to do hypotheticals.”
POLITICO previouslyreportedthat Trump’s reelection campaign did not respond to numerous inquiries on whether he would report foreign assistance to the FBI, including information stolen from opponents.
A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment on the president’s remarks, and an FBI spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Law enforcement veterans said Trump’s comments set off glaring red alarms.
“I am sure that the president’s attorneys are apoplectic given that the Mueller report sets forth a pattern of obstruction that is profound,” said Gene Rossi, a former federal prosecutor from Virginia. “This statement is a jewel of an admission that sheds light on the intent of not only himself but possible members of his family and campaign. In layman’s terms, the president truly stepped in it.
“If I were trying the case, the video would be Exhibit One. In fact, this quote would be the first sentence out of my mouth in my opening statement to the jury. Stay tuned.”
David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor from South Florida, said any American connected to an election had a “fundamental responsibility” to report contact with foreign agents, with repercussions on national security and potential violations of foreign lobbying laws. “The comments made today show that he doesn’t have even a basic grasp of the laws that exist in our country,” Weinstein told POLITICO.
The political Blowback from Trump’s remarks was swift.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said on CNN that he was stunned but unsurprised by the president’s remarks. Schiff countered Trump’s and Kushner’s assessments that foreign help did not need to be reported, saying that foreign contact must be declared just as campaign contributions.
“Donald Trump has made it clear that he will engage in any action, no matter how unethical or unpatriotic, that he will go up to the line of what’s legal and indeed he looks like he crossed that line many times,” Schiff said.
Schiff also said it was “pure nonsense” that members of Congress would receive foreign assistance in campaigns and not report it.
“He projects onto others his own lack of morality,” Schiff said of the president.
Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, also responded with dismay, saying that accepting foreign assistance could put Trump “indebt to a foreign power… not to mention the foreign interference in an American election part.“
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) both introduced legislation in April that would require candidates to declare any foreign assistance to the FBI. After the ABC clip went public, Blumenthal called Trump’s comments “America‘s worst nightmare.“
“A President saying he would welcome political campaign aid from sworn enemies like Russia & China,” Blumenthal wrote on Twitter. “Trump’s happy acceptance of illicit dirt shows his conscience to be a cesspool — he‘d rather sacrifice national security for personal self interest.”
And earlier in the day, Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, ardently refuted that campaigns normally accept foreign assistance during a hearing Wednesday. “That is not what campaigns do,“ he said.
Democrats running for president in 2020 were quick to condemn Trump‘s remarks.Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) tweeted soon after the interview clip was published: “A foreign government attacked our 2016 elections to support Trump, Trump welcomed that help, and Trump obstructed the investigation. Now, he said he’d do it all over again. It’s time to impeach Donald Trump.”
Warren has called for Trump’s impeachment since the release of a redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Other Democrats — including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, Sen. Kamala Harris of California and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey — echoed Warren‘s tweet.
Former Vice President Joe Biden condemned the remarks by saying foreign interference was a question of national security, not politics.
“An American President,“ he wrote on Twitter, “should not seek their aid and abet those who seek to undermine democracy.”
Darren Samuelsohn, Christopher Cadelago and Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.