In 2016, for Donald Trump, it was “Russia, if you’re listening.…” In 2020, it’s “Anyone, if you’re listening….”
Speaking to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on Wednesday, the president was clear: Having gotten away with collusion during the 2016 election, he would happily do it again. “I think you might want to listen. I don’t—there’s nothing wrong with listening. If somebody called from a country—Norway—‘We have information on your opponent.’ Oh. I think I’d want to hear it,” Trump said. “It’s not interference. They have information. I think I’d take it. 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.”
In the same interview, pressed about his son Donald Trump Jr.’s failure to contact the FBI after being offered “dirt” on Hillary Clinton from Russians, the president was dismissive about the need to alert federal law enforcement. “I’ve seen a lot of things over my life. I don’t think in my whole life I’ve ever called the FBI. In my whole life. You don’t call the FBI. You throw somebody out of your office, you do whatever you do,” he said, echoing Cam’ron.
On Thursday, Trump doubled down, sort of. In a series of tweets—one initially referring to the Prince of Wales as the “Prince of Whales”—he defended the need to keep conversations with foreign leaders secret.
It’s not entirely clear what the Queen of England would have on potential Democratic presidential candidates, but Trump’s defense is that, as president, he has to have privileged conversations with foreign dignitaries. But that’s not the issue here, and it certainly isn’t what Trump was talking about with Stephanopoulos. In no uncertain terms, the president was saying that, given the opportunity to again boost his political prospects with information provided by a foreign actor, he would accept the contribution with open arms.
The Mueller report contained evidence of a number of contacts between the Trump campaign and figures with ties to Russian intelligence, including a meeting in Trump Tower between a group of Russians, Don Jr., Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, and Trump’s then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort. But Mueller ultimately declined to recommend bringing charges over the meeting because he believed there wasn’t enough evidence to prove that the group knew the law and intended to break it. Trump’s eldest son, in other words, got off because Mueller thought he wasn’t smart enough to understand what he was doing. (Manafort was, however, convicted on a series of financial fraud counts.)
In 2016, Trump and his campaign welcomed and eventually encouraged Russian interference because they (correctly) assumed they would benefit from it. Despite a nearly two-year special counsel investigation, Mueller believed he lacked the evidence to prove a conspiracy. It appears Trump and his cronies passively colluded, but never made an explicit tit-for-tat deal with any Russians or Russian cutouts in exchange for help defeating Clinton—at least not so the special counsel could demonstrate (though the Mueller report does note the investigation was complicated by uncooperative witnesses and the destruction of evidence). That let the Trump team off the hook with Mueller. Democrats in Congress are also letting the president off the hook by refusing to start an official impeachment process despite the numerous clear examples of obstruction of justice contained in the Mueller report.
In Wednesday’s interview, Trump also discounted the advice of his own FBI director, Christopher Wray. Last month, Wray told Congress that anyone receiving overtures from a foreign power should contact the Bureau immediately. “The FBI Director is wrong,” a visibly angry Trump told Stephanapolous.
Reasons to contact the FBI (and other federal authorities, for that matter) are myriad. Information, such as opposition research, is considered an “in kind” donation, as much a campaign contribution as a gift of cash. Federal election law prohibits such gifts from foreign entities, full stop. In addition, receiving information—even if you “just want to hear it,” as Trump said, without making any deal—creates an immediate and obvious blackmail risk. That, however, has never appeared to be this administration’s biggest concern.
It’s no wonder, given this dynamic, that Trump thinks he could get away with encouraging a foreign power to interfere in American elections once more. “No collusion,” Trump’s battle cry for much of the past three years, has given way to an open invitation to foreign actors, asking one or more to interfere in the 2020 election. In 2016, Russia took the bait. In 2020, given the president’s comments, any number could be ready to start fishing.