In controversial interview, President Donald Trump told ABC News Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos in the Oval Office that he would accept dirt on political opponents from foreign governments and would not necessarily alert his own FBI. He further said that FBI Director Christoper Wray was “wrong” in saying that such contacts should be reported. There is nothing illegal in receiving such information for either politicians or journalists. However, it puts Trump at odds with the view not only of his own agencies but most of the public on the need to alert the FBI. In the aftermath of the interview, various Fox hosts criticized not Trump but ABC for what they portrayed as an ambush. It was not an ambush. It was a standard interview with a highly relevant (and predictable) question by Stephanopoulos. At the same time, the CNN’s Chris Cuomo is also wrong to portray this as endorsing possible criminal conduct. There is nothing illegal in accepting information from foreign intelligence figures, which was done by the Clinton campaign in the Steele Dossier. Trump has downplayed the comments.
Stephanopoulos asked whether his campaign would accept damaging information from countries like China or Russia — or hand it over the FBI. Turmp “I think maybe you do both.” Trump continued “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.”
That alone might not have caused as much of a stir. However, Trump then added that he might not inform the FBI:
“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. But when somebody comes 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. When you go and talk, honestly, to congressman, they all do it, they always have, and that’s the way it is. It’s called oppo research.
. . . “Somebody comes up and says, ‘hey, I have information on your opponent,’ do you call the FBI? . . . I’ll tell you what, 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 . . . ” Oh, give me a break – life doesn’t work that way.”
Stephanopoulos then asked the obvious follow up about the fact that Wray said that the FBI should have been informed about such efforts related to the Trump Tower meeting. Trump then directed contradicted his own FBI: “The FBI director is wrong, because frankly it doesn’t happen like that in life. Now maybe it will start happening, maybe today you’d think differently.”
Again, there is no law requiring notice to the FBI. However, this is a government offering dirt on a presidential candidate. It should be concerning for any official. There is nothing unlawful in receiving the information but there is ample reason to inform the FBI of a foreign power interfering with our election, particularly a hostile foreign power. Some have argued that information can be a “thing of value” under federal election laws. If so, receiving information from a foreign government could violate the ban on such contributions. However, I have always viewed such arguments as too sweeping. Obviously, there is a great deal of information that passes from government sources, including information acquired by the Clinton campaign from foreign intelligence figures in the Steele Dossier. The loose interpretation given to any “information” as a “thing of value”
would raise serious first amendment concerns that I have discussed in earlier columns.
The interview added yet another damaging soundbite to use against Trump in the general election. He gained nothing from the comments. He could have acknowledged that he would listen to evidence of possible criminal acts, but that he would simply notify the FBI as a matter of course. Instead, as correctly noted by Fox anchor Brian Kilmeade, opened himself up to an avalanche of bipartisan criticism.
Given the detailed findings of the Mueller report on Russian efforts to influence our election, the President’s statement could not come at a worse time. It also throws into doubt the position of our government after the report and could a course for a major collision between the Wray and Trump on the issue.