WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Thursday defended his willingness to accept political dirt on his rivals from a foreign entity, comparing the potentially illicit exchange with his routine diplomatic discussions.
Trump, in the face of bipartisan criticism over his remarks, took to Twitter to downplay comments from his Wednesday interview with ABC News in which he asserted “there’s nothing wrong with listening” to political dirt offered by a foreign agent.
In the one-on-one interview, Trump was noncommittal when asked whether he would report such an exchange to the FBI, prompting Senate Democrats to push unsuccessfully for a floor vote Thursday on legislation that would require candidates to turn over such information to the agency.
Democrats, including the crowded field of 2020 presidential hopefuls, argued that Trump’s remarks would encourage foreign interference in the upcoming election, and were quick to note that it is a federal crime for a campaign to solicit or accept election aid from foreign entities.
Trump, on Twitter, brushed off the criticism, which comes months after special counsel Robert Mueller wrapped up the Justice Department’s 22-month probe into Russian election interference. The extensive probe uncovered the Kremlin’s attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election through a series of social media campaigns and through Democratic email hacks aimed at boosting Trump's candidacy.
The investigation detailed links between a handful of Trump campaign aides and Russia, and examined an attempt by a Kremlin-linked attorney to offer the Trump campaign "dirt" on Hillary Clinton, but investigators ultimately did not establish evidence of a criminal conspiracy between the campaign and Kremlin.
“I meet and talk to 'foreign governments' every day. 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!' " Trump tweeted. "Should I immediately call the FBI about these calls and meetings? How ridiculous! I would never be trusted again."
FBI Director Christopher Wray has said in testimony before lawmakers that candidates should report foreign attempts to contact their campaigns, but Trump dismissed Wray’s comments on Wednesday, telling ABC News, “Give me a break. Life doesn’t work that way.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who is facing growing pressure from her caucus to open an impeachment inquiry into Trump in response to the Mueller report, said Trump’s remarks were an “invitation of further attacks” and “a violation of his oath of office.”
"It should go without saying: if a foreign adversary offers a candidate any assistance, they shouldn’t only not accept it — they should report it to the FBI,” Pelosi said in a tweet that she ended with the hashtag “#LawlessPresident.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), in a Senate floor speech, described Trump’s comments as “undemocratic, un-American, disgraceful” and called on Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to schedule a floor vote on a series of bipartisan election security bills that have so far languished in the Senate.
“The president’s comments suggest that he believes winning an election is more important than the integrity of the election,” Schumer said. “That idea is flat-out wrong. The president’s idea that winning the election is everything, and the integrity of the election is nothing, is one small step away from dictators and autocrats who manipulate the results of an election because they care more about staying in power than they care about democratic principles.”
Republican lawmakers also criticized the president’s remarks, while calling for equal scrutiny of the so-called opposition research Democrats reportedly acquired from a firm run by former British spy Christopher Steele in 2016.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of Trump’s staunchest supporters in the Senate, told reporters on Capitol Hill that he disagreed with Trump’s position, saying “the likelihood of foreign interference is growing, not lessening.”
“I think it’s a mistake. I think it’s a mistake of law. I don’t want to send a signal to encourage this,” Graham said.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told reporters: “If a federal official or a federal candidate for high public office is contacted by a hostile foreign power with an offer of information or assistance, the proper response is to call the FBI.”