WASHINGTON — The fallout from President Donald Trump’s apparent willingness to accept dirt on a political opponent, even if it came from Russia, reverberated Thursday through Capitol Hill.
During her weekly press conference, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi saw the remarks as proof Trump “does not know right from wrong.”
Pelosi was reacting to Trump’s comments on ABC News after anchor George Stephanopoulos asked Trump what he would want his campaign to do if Russia or China offered dirt on opponents.
“I think I’d take it,” Trump answered. He added he might go to the FBI, but he didn’t think the FBI had enough agents to deal with such issues. He added when it comes to accepting opposition research, “they all do it.” Upon further consideration, Trump offered that he might “do both” — first learn what the derogatory information might be, but then call the FBI.
When Stephanopoulos mentioned that FBI Director Christopher Wray, whom Trump appointed, said candidates should call the FBI if a foreign country offered dirt on an opponent, the president responded, “the FBI Director is wrong.”
“The president has given Russia the green light to interfere in the 2020 election,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., responded on Twitter.
Report foreign offers
On Thursday, Warner took to the floor to urge colleagues to pass his Foreign Influence Reporting in Elections Act that would make it a legal duty to report foreign power’s offers of assistance to the FBI.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., agreed that foreign influence on U.S. elections is a problem.
But Graham, a frequent golfing buddy of the president, then put a different spin on the controversy: “Finally, the outrage some of my Democratic colleagues are raising about President Trump’s comments will hopefully be met with equal outrage that their own party hired a foreign national to do opposition research on President Trump’s campaign and that information, unverified, was apparently used by the FBI to obtain a warrant against an American citizen.”
Graham was referring to Hillary Clinton 2016 campaign and the Democratic party’s financing of former British intelligence official Christopher Steele, who put together a “dossier” on alleged Russian compromising material on Trump.
The Trump campaign did not get opposition research directly from Russian actors, according to special counsel Robert Mueller’s report. Still, some have argued Donald Trump Jr. and other top aides broke the law when they met with a Russian lawyer with ties to the Kremlin in Trump Tower in July 2016.
Can words be contributions?
In 2017, Common Cause filed a complaint that charged the Trump Tower meeting constituted an illegal solicitation. “Federal campaign finance law defines “contribution” to include anything of value given for the purpose of influencing a federal election. And federal law prohibits any person from soliciting or receiving a contribution from a foreign national,” the good-government group argued.
But former FEC chairman Bradley Smith, now chairman of the Institute for Free Speech, told the Review-Journal, “I don’t think speaking to somebody can be a thing of value.”
Smith painted an alternate scenario – what if an American had damaging information about an attempted rape allegedly committed by a candidate for office. If such information had value in influencing an election, telling an opponent about the incident likely would violate campaign finance contribution caps.
“I didn’t know words, oral or written, were automatically contributions, either from a foreigner or an American. The law, so far, does not regulate conversations,” said Washington, D.C., election lawyer Jan Baran, who added he did not believe conversations can be a contribution unless they involve “commercially ascertainable valuable.”
Paul S. Ryan of Common Cause argued that Trump Jr. solicited “something of value” from the Russians. If the Trump Tower meeting is difficult to prosecute, Ryan told the Review Journal, he believes Trump Jr. could be subject to a fine by the FEC.
Even if the legal front is hazy, Trump lost ground on the political front. House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth posted a video of the ABC News interview under the heading, “Behold, the latest Article of Impeachment.”