There’s a strange paradox in President Donald Trump’s approach to the truth. He’s willing to tell a vast and dizzying array of lies, half-truths, and fabrications to advance his goals. But he can also be refreshingly honest at times, even when a lie might serve him better. In an interview with ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos, released on Thursday, he said he wouldn’t turn down foreign assistance to win the 2020 presidential election.
“Your campaign this time around,” Stephanopoulos said, “if foreigners, if Russia, if China, if someone else offers you information on opponents, should they accept it or should they call the FBI?”
“I think maybe you do both,” Trump replied. “I think you might want to listen, there isn’t anything wrong with listening. If somebody called from a country—Norway—[and said], ‘We have information on your opponent,’ oh, I think I’d want to hear it.”
“You want that kind of interference in our elections?” Stephanopoulos asked.
“It’s not an interference,” Trump said. “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 come up with oppo research, right, they come up with oppo research. ‘Oh, let’s call the FBI.’ The FBI doesn’t have enough agents to take care of it. But you go and talk honestly to congressmen, they all do it, they always have. And that’s the way it is.”
Trump effectively is inviting foreign governments (again) to interfere in the American democratic process for his personal gain. He’s welcoming cyberattacks on elected officials and candidates by authoritarian regimes hoping to curry favor with the Trump administration. It’s a violation of his constitutional duty to protect the country from foreign adversaries and enforce its laws. It’s also an impeachable offense, and yet, there will almost certainly be no consequences for it.
Trump’s defenders might spin his remarks by noting that he’s still open to contacting the FBI. That would be misleading on two counts. First, it doesn’t accurately convey the spirit of his words. Note that while Trump leaves the door open to contacting the FBI if it happens, he’s equivocal and dissembling at best. (In the same interview, he flatly said that FBI Director Chris Wray was “wrong” for insisting that campaigns report foreign meddling to the Bureau.) When it comes to using dirt from foreign powers, however, he’s far more certain and defensive about the idea.
As his remarks made news on Thursday morning, Trump waved away the criticism:
Needless to say, foreign dirt wouldn’t come from Norway or other stable democratic allies like Ireland, France, and England. It would come from corrupt authoritarian regimes that want to manipulate American democracy for their own ends. In 2016, the Russian government favored Trump because he appeared open to relieving U.S. sanctions on the country. What if Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies try to repay Trump’s support as president by meddling in 2020? (The United Arab Emirates, which has close ties with the White House, reportedly targets dissidents, foreign news outlets, and rival states with cyberattacks.) What if Chinese leaders try to push the election in his opponents’ favor, in hopes of ending the trade war?
Trump and his allies have long sought to normalize their contacts with Russian intermediaries last time. (Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and an influential White House courtier, also recently refused to say he’d alert the FBI to potential meddling.) And the Republican Party writ large has largely enabled it. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is blocking the Senate from considering any bills that would bolster election security for next year, when he, too, is up for reelection. Ideally, American leaders would set aside their partisan differences to protect the democratic system from foreign meddling. Those higher aspirations are no match for McConnell’s unstinting hyper-partisanship.
A basic principle in a democratic society is that elected leaders act in the people’s best interest. There’s also an inherent obligation to serve no one else. When they serve their party, we call it partisanship. When they serve themselves, we call it corruption. When they serve their family, we call it nepotism. When they serve a foreign government, we call it treason.
Trump’s actions don’t legally amount to treason, of course. (The Constitution’s framers knew well how English kings had abused charges of high treason to dispose of their political enemies, and wisely included a provision that set a high threshold to find someone guilty of that crime.) But his encouragement of foreign meddling is still a profound betrayal, one that places his interests above American self-government and the rule of law. If this isn’t an impeachable offense, nothing is.
House Democratic leaders disagree. Asked on Thursday about Trump’s remarks, Speaker Nancy Pelosi sounded more like a disappointed parent than the sole American with the power to launch an impeachment inquiry into the president. “The president gave us once again evidence that he does not know right from wrong,” she told reporters on Thursday. “It’s a very sad thing, a very sad thing that he does not know right from wrong.” Pelosi then used the opportunity to call for a Senate vote on H.R. 1—the For the People Act—the Democrats’ election-reform legislative package. Whatever the bill’s overall merits, it’s a weak response to a president who flagrantly undermines American democracy.
Trump likely won’t face any consequences for this betrayal as long as impeachment stays off the table. Nor will anyone else in this saga. McConnell, Trump’s great enabler, faces little risk of being unseated in 2020. Even Pelosi herself won’t face consequences for her refusal to impeach Trump; she remains broadly popular among Democrats and already announced when she’ll step down as speaker.
Those consequences instead will be felt by everyone else in the country. American democracy, though never perfect, could be a lot worse. Thanks to Trump’s actions, Americans risk inheriting a democracy where elections are playgrounds for foreign powers rather than an expression of citizens’ wishes.