President Donald Trump sidestepped a direct question Wednesday about what, exactly, he wanted when he asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for a “favor” involving investigation of corruption involving, among others, former Vice President Joe Biden.
But Trump had already made clear months ago that he’s perfectly fine taking foreign intelligence on his political rivals.
Back in June, Trump was interviewed in the Oval Office by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on the same day his son Don Jr. was called back to Capitol Hill for more testimony on his Trump Tower meeting in 2016 with Russians who had promised dirt on Hillary Clinton. During that exchange with Stephanopoulos, Trump said that everyone, including congressmen, goes to foreign countries for dirt on their opponents.
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At the time, we reported on all the different reasons accepting dirt from a foreign government is a bad idea. The context then was Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. Since then, we now know, Trump and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani tried to pressure Ukraine’s President to investigate Biden and his son Hunter over an energy deal. There’s no evidence of wrongdoing by either.
Trump also asked the Australian leader, who visited just before the Ukraine scandal poured forth, to help Attorney General William Barr look into US intelligence agencies.
That a President who builds his policy around nationalism is seeking foreign help against Americans might seem obviously troubling. But actually Trump has a realpolitik worldview on this issue and he’s pushed it for some time. To him, it’s nothing more than “oppo research.”
Let’s go back to the June interview with Stephanopoulos. Remember, the backdrop here was Don Jr. not telling the FBI about Russians reaching out with the promise of dirt on Clinton.
Stephanopoulos: Should he have gone to the FBI when he got that email?
Trump: OK, let’s put yourself in a position. You’re a congressman. Somebody comes up and says, ‘Hey, I have information on your opponent.’ Would you call the FBI?
Stephanopoulos: If it’s coming from Russia, you do.
Trump: I 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. I don’t. You don’t call the FBI. You throw somebody out of your office. You do whatever you do. …
Stephanopoulos: Al Gore got a stolen briefing book. He called the FBI.
Trump: Well, that’s different – a stolen briefing book. This isn’t a stolen briefing book. This is somebody who said we have information on your opponent. Oh. Let me call the FBI. Give me a break. Life doesn’t work that way.
Stephanopoulos: The FBI director says that’s what should happen.
Trump: The FBI director is wrong.
Stephanopoulos: Your campaign this time. If foreigners, if Russia, if China, if someone else offers you information on an opponent, should they accept it or should they call the FBI?
Trump: I think maybe you do both. 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.
Stephanopoulos: You want that kind of interference in our elections?
Trump: It’s not interference. They have information. I think I’d take it. If I thought there was something wrong, I’d go take it, maybe, to the FBI. If I thought there was something wrong.
But if 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. But you go talk honestly to congressmen; they all do it, they always have. It’s called oppo research.
Trump later clarified to Fox News that he would report such an exchange to the FBI after all. But the conversation is interesting within the longer arc of the brewing Ukraine scandal. Giuliani, at that point, was already actively pushing Ukraine conspiracy theories about the Bidens. Trump’s administration had recalled the US ambassador to Ukraine, prompting Democrats to question why.
But it was more than a month before his call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, as well as a subsequent meeting between Giuliani and a Zelensky ally.
Trump clearly sees nothing wrong with his request to Zelensky and he’s repeatedly called it a “perfect” phone call. Democrats, who have launched an impeachment inquiry, and an increasing number of Republicans, see it differently.
The idea of foreign interference in US elections, meantime, has become a punchline.
“I’m going to tell you a secret,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday, asked at an energy conference if he would meddle in the US election in 2020. “Yes, sure, we’re going to do that. Don’t tell anybody.”
Putin has denied interfering in the 2016 election, despite the agreement of the US intelligence community that he did and the charges brought against Russians as a result of the Russia investigation.
“Look, I haven’t been President all my life, but my previous life taught me that any of my conversation can become public,” said Putin when asked about the Trump-Ukraine scandal and ensuing impeachment inquiry. In Putin’s previous life he was a KGB agent. “I always proceed from this.”
“I assure you there was nothing to that would have compromised President Trump there,” Putin said of his talks with Trump.
Trump has seized some translator notes of his interactions with Putin and his aides have sought to hide some of his conversations with Russia’s leader in a secret computer system at the White House, CNN reported last week.
But there are signs Trump realizes it is not a good look for him to be shopping for “oppo research.” He became angry at Reuters reporter Jeff Mason on Wednesday during a news conference alongside the President of Finland when Mason asked Trump repeatedly why he wanted the Ukrainian President to look into Biden.
Instead of answering directly, Trump argued he had withheld funding from Ukraine because “I don’t like being the sucker country.” Then he refused to say any more until Mason moved on.