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“Russia, If You’re Still Listening...”

The White House is normalizing foreign interference in American democracy, all but encouraging it to happen again.

Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

Rudy Giuliani is known for making outlandish remarks. As the public face of President Donald Trump’s legal team, he spent the last year serving up a smorgasbord of madcap talking points about the Russia investigation and Trump’s other legal woes. But his comments on the Sunday morning shows might be his most troubling yet.

“There’s nothing wrong with taking information from Russians,” Giuliani told Jake Tapper on CNN’s State of the Union. When asked on NBC’s Meet the Press that same day whether political campaigns should accept stolen information from foreign powers, Giuliani replied that it “depends on the stolen material.” The Russian government “shouldn’t have stolen it,” he explained to Chuck Todd, “but the American people were just given more information.”

Before the 2016 election, it would have been almost unthinkable for a president’s personal lawyer to suggest that foreign powers should try to influence American elections. The Russian government’s campaign to tip the scales in Trump’s favor should have been a wake-up call for Americans across the political spectrum. Instead, the president and his allies haven’t just defended their actions last time around; they’ve all but signaled that such assistance would be welcomed in the future.

Giuliani’s remarks to Tapper came in response to comments by Utah Senator Mitt Romney, who criticized the Trump campaign last week after the Mueller report’s release. “I am also appalled that, among other things, fellow citizens working in a campaign for president welcomed help from Russia—including information that had been illegally obtained; that none of them acted to inform American law enforcement,” Romney wrote on Twitter.

“What a hypocrite,” Giuliani told Tapper. “Any candidate in the whole world would take information—”

Tapper interrupted. “From a foreign source?”

“Who says it’s illegal?” Giuliani replied.

After more cross-talk in the CNN interview, Tapper asked again why Giuliani thought Romney was a hypocrite and if he was suggesting that Romney had taken information from a foreign source in 2012. “No, no,” Giuliani replied. “There’s nothing wrong with taking information from Russians. It depends on where it came from. You’re assuming that the giving of information is a campaign contribution. Read the report carefully. The report says we can’t conclude that because the law is pretty much against that. People get information from this person, from that person....” When Tapper asked him if he’d do so if he was a candidate, Giuliani said that he wouldn’t out of an “abundance of caution.”

Giuliani’s characterization of the Mueller report isn’t accurate, to say the least. Federal campaign-finance laws forbid campaigns from soliciting or receiving contributions from foreign citizens, governments, or organizations. Those laws also broadly define contributions to include “a contribution or donation of money or other thing of value.” In the report, Robert Mueller argued that seeking or obtaining “dirt” about a rival candidate—like what Donald Trump Jr. attempted to do in the summer of 2016—could qualify as a violation under those laws and Federal Election Commission rules.

“A campaign can be assisted not only by the provision of funds, but also by the provision of derogatory information about an opponent,” Mueller wrote. “Political campaigns frequently conduct and pay for opposition research. A foreign entity that engaged in such research and provided resulting information to a campaign could exert a greater effect on an election, and a greater tendency to ingratiate the donor to the candidate, than a gift of money or tangible things of value.”

However, Mueller conceded that this prosecutorial strategy wasn’t foolproof. He noted that there was no judicial ruling that addressed a case like this, so it was “uncertain how courts would resolve those issues.” On the Trump Tower meeting in particular, Mueller laid out two reasons why he didn’t bring charges. First, the evidence didn’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Donald Trump Jr. and the other participants had known they were breaking the law, he said. Second, campaign finance laws would only make it a felony if the “thing of value” is worth more than $25,000, and Mueller concluded that it would be hard to establish whether the potential information was worth that much. Giuliani took this as vindication on the underlying legal questions, but it’s better seen as prosecutorial caution on the special counsel’s part.

Giuliani’s civic beliefs are as troubling as his legal analysis. In the Meet the Press interview, he defended the Russian government’s strategy of distributing stolen Democratic emails. “Everything they put out about Hillary Clinton was true,” he told Todd. “They didn’t make things up. They shouldn’t have stolen it. But the American people were just given more information about how deceptive, how manipulative her people and her campaign were.”

He then argued that any harm Clinton suffered from the crime committed against her by a foreign adversary is her own fault. “In other words, if the Russians had stolen the information and it showed Hillary Clinton to be just a wonderful person and everybody was fine, they were all honest, they were all terrific, it would have helped her,” he explained. “If it hurt her at all, it only hurt her because the American people got information that was gotten in the wrong way but it all was true.”

Giuliani isn’t the only Republican who’s praised the benefits of foreign meddling. The president himself has long argued that his campaign’s efforts to obtain damaging information on Clinton from the Russians was a perfectly legitimate electioneering tactic. “Most politicians would have gone to a meeting like the one [Donald Trump Jr.] attended in order to get info on an opponent,” he wrote on Twitter in July 2017 after the Trump Tower meeting became public knowledge. “That’s politics!” Since taking office, Trump has resisted Congress’s efforts to sanction the Russian government for its election interference and publicly endorsed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials of responsibility.

Taken altogether, Trumpworld’s message is that welcoming foreign efforts to sway American elections are neither a criminal act nor a civic sin. To Giuliani, foreign cyberattacks are a valid way for Americans to learn about his client’s political opponents. To Trump, encouraging Russian meddling in American presidential campaigns is a valid campaign strategy, and his critics are only mad they didn’t think of it first. By normalizing foreign influence campaigns in American elections, the two men are all but encouraging it to happen again.

The implications for U.S. democracy are grim. In the late eighteenth century, the Founding Fathers feared the possibility that corrupt foreign influence would subvert American institutions more than almost any other potential threat to the early republic. They worried that the nation’s future leaders would be more interested in obtaining and holding power than in sustaining the values of a healthy nation. By seeking to turn elections into a playground for foreign powers, Giuliani and Trump have proven them right.