UPDATE 2-Democrats: Trump comments give green light to foreign election meddlingReuters | Washington DC | Updated: 14-06-2019 00:06 IST | Created: 13-06-2019 23:54 IST
Democratic lawmakers accused President Donald Trump on Thursday of giving Russia the green light to interfere in the 2020 U.S. presidential race, while a top Republican ally said Trump was wrong to say he would accept political dirt from foreign sources. The uproar followed televised comments in which the U.S. president told ABC News he would be willing to listen to such damaging information about political opponents as he seeks re-election.
"I think you might want to listen, there isn't anything wrong with listening," Trump said in an interview aired Wednesday. "It's not an 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." Trump's comments came less than three months after Special Counsel Robert Mueller submitted a report that found Russia waged a hacking and influence campaign to help Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.
The Trump remarks to ABC drew outrage from Democratic lawmakers and presidential candidates seeking to challenge Trump in 2020, as well as one of Trump's leading Republican allies. "What the president said last night shows clearly, once again, over and over again, that he does not know the difference between right and wrong," said U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress. "There is no sense ... any ethical sense that informs his comments and his thinking."
Some Democratic presidential candidates renewed their call to impeach the president. However, Pelosi said Democratic leaders would stick with their plan to investigate Trump and his administration before any formal impeachment proceedings. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said Democrats would try to pass legislation on Thursday that would require campaigns to report offers of foreign assistance to the FBI.
One of Trump's closest allies in Congress, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, said he was open to such legislation as he joined Democrats in criticizing the president's remarks. "I think it's a mistake," said Graham, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
He accused Democrats of also having accepted damaging information from foreign nationals on political opponents and said any public official contacted by a foreign government with an offer of help to their campaign should reject it and inform the FBI. Some prominent Republicans struggled to explain the president's comments, with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy saying he was confident Trump was speaking hypothetically.
Others were outspoken in their discomfort. "It is never appropriate to allow a foreign government or its agents to interfere in our election process. Period," said Republican Senator Mike Rounds of South Dakota. White House spokesman Hogan Gidley told Fox News that Trump said he would "of course" go to the FBI if there was wrongdoing, although Trump said he would "maybe" go to the FBI.
"THING OF VALUE"
Any foreign contribution of "money or other thing of value" violates U.S. campaign finance law. Legal experts say knowingly soliciting information from a foreign entity would also be illegal.
An FBI counterintelligence investigation of Russian election activities in the 2016 presidential election sparked Mueller's probe, which confirmed U.S. intelligence agencies' findings that Russia worked to help Trump win. Mueller, whose investigation examined a 2016 meeting at Trump Tower that Trump's campaign had with Russians promising dirt on Clinton, did not charge Trump campaign staff who attended the meeting.
Trump defended his remarks in a flurry of tweets on Thursday morning in which he said it would be "ridiculous" to report his contacts with foreign leaders to the FBI. Top Democrats on the House and Senate intelligence committee expressed alarm at Trump's comments.
Senator Mark Warner recalled Trump's "Russia, if you are listening" call for Moscow to dig up Clinton's missing emails during the 2016 campaign. "The President has given Russia the green light to interfere in the 2020 election," Warner wrote in a Twitter post.
"The president has either learned nothing in the last two years or picked up exactly the wrong lesson - that he can accept gleefully foreign assistance again and escape the punishment of the law," U.S. Representative Adam Schiff said. Democratic presidential candidates who renewed calls for Trump's impeachment included U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand and U.S. Representative Eric Swalwell.
"A foreign government attacked our 2016 elections to support Trump, Trump welcomed that help, and Trump obstructed the investigation. Now, he said he'd do it all over again. It's time to impeach Donald Trump," Warren said.