Here’s the main question that arises from Media-Democrat shrieking over President Trump’s twaddle about taking campaign-related information from foreign powers: Is it just silly or actually dangerous?
In our latest episode of Un-reality Government, the president was egged on by — who else? — George Stephanopoulos, a partisan Democrat who is the face of ABC News. When last noticed in an election cycle, the Clinton confidant was setting up Mitt Romney with a question about whether the Constitution permitted the banning of contraceptives. Of course, no one was proposing a ban on contraceptives; the question was strategically planted to seed the Democrats’ War on Women narrative. Common sense, if there were any, would have the administration asking: Why would we give George Stephanopoulos two days of access? If your answer is “Because that worked out so well with Michael Wolff,” pull that résumé together, because there’s surely a White House staff job waiting just for you.
So what did George ask this time? He wanted to know whether, with the lessons of 2016 in mind, the president thought it would be appropriate to let a foreign government “interfere” in our elections by taking from that government information damaging to the opposing candidate.
Naturally, Stephanopoulos did not preface his query with, “You know, the way that Ukrainian parliamentarian who was a source for Hillary’s campaign leaked that oppo about the secret payments to Manafort.” And the president was not swift enough to ask Stephanopoulos for clarification: “You mean, like, an amateur-hour arrangement where I, or my son, take the information directly from Russia? Does it count if I’m smart enough to have my cut-out law firm hire the cut-out grifters from Fusion GPS, and then they do the dirty work of hiring the foreign spy to tap the Russian sources — in their spare time from helping Putin’s cronies beat back the Justice Department?”
In his staccato style, Trump appeared to respond that it would be all right to accept the information (because mere information is “not an interference” in an election); but he left ambiguous whether he’d notify the FBI of the foreign contact: “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 it was something wrong.”
The president elaborated with a hypothetical: “If somebody called from a country, Norway, [and said,] ‘We have information on your opponent’ — oh, I think I’d want to hear it.”
I know, you’re thinking, “Those sly Norwegians . . .” I found myself wishing that, instead of Norway, the president had reached another 500 miles eastward, to Estonia, for his example. Then he could have made two points to demonstrate the speciousness and hypocrisy of Stephanopoulos’s line of inquiry.
Point One: Friend or Foe?
The first point involves whether a country is an ally or adversary. Stephanopoulos specifically asked about “interference” from China and Russia, countries that are hostile. (To be more accurate, they are countries whose hostility Democrats now perceive temporary advantage in acknowledging — not to worry; they’ll go back to “why can’t we be friends?” mode the moment Trump is gone.) But if campaign information were to come from Estonia, Norway, or some other friendly country, that could be very different. Not all information that could “interfere” in an election is the same. The source matters.
Note that Democrats such as Stephanopoulos have to ask what the president thinks should be done if such information is offered. There is no legal mandate here. Democrats are forced to conjure up a new ethical duty to report outreach from foreign governments because it is not against the law to take information. We are not dealing with a crime, and there is no legal duty to report anything to the FBI.
Besides being a law-enforcement agency, the FBI is our domestic security service, guarding against foreign threats. As such, besides taking reports about crime, the bureau is in the intelligence business. The Democrats’ point, then, is that even if it is not illegal to take information from a foreign regime that may be trying to influence an American election, the FBI should nevertheless be told because the foreign outreach may have counterintelligence significance.
But how much significance? That could depend on whether the country offering the information is friend or foe. If Russia is calling to give the president information about a political opponent, odds are it is making mischief. But what if the call relaying such information comes from, say, Canada? While it is possible that this could be nefarious, it is more likely that, like a good neighbor, Canada would be trying to warn the president about some peril to American interests.
Point Two: Situational Ethics
Which brings us to the second point and my reference to Estonia. In the 2016 election, Estonia did call President Obama’s administration to provide opposition research — specifically, to convey unverified intelligence that Russia might be channeling money into the Trump campaign. The Brits provided information too. So did the Aussies. So, according to former CIA director John Brennan, did a number of European governments.
To be sure, these countries are our allies. But that hardly means they were concerned only for our well-being. Like Brennan, they had their own anti-Trump agendas. The foreign-affairs component of Trump’s populist platform seemed to be: better relations with Putin, NATO bashing, skepticism about American interventions and military commitments, and halting the U.S. taxpayer-funded gravy train for European security. Europeans did not like this, not one little bit. Next thing you knew, there were streams of anti-Trump intelligence being channeled into the CIA — none of which, it turns out, established a Trump–Russia “collusion” conspiracy. But when it comes to these countries’ “interference” in our election, I know you’ll be shocked that Democrats are not only unconcerned; they are outraged that the Justice Department is investigating.
Are you seeing how this works? In the Stephanopoulos construct, when a Republican president gets information about the Democratic rival, there is a duty to treat the matter as a crime and report it to the FBI. Since the outreach is not a crime and the FBI won’t actually do anything other than note it in an intelligence file, the transparent purpose of this construct is to convert any Republican failure to report the non-crime into a political scandal — bordering on treason.
By contrast, when a Democratic president is in power, the intelligence community is placed in the service of the Democratic candidate. If a foreign power reaches out with information, no matter how dubious, about the Republican candidate, the administration does not notify the FBI to investigate the foreign power for interfering in our election; the Democratic administration thanks the foreign power and then directs the FBI to investigate the Republican candidate.
Our Glass House
Much like Stephanopoulos’s contraception gambit in 2012, his question this week about reporting foreign “interference” gives Democrats a narrative to run with.
On Wednesday, when news of the Trump–Stephanopoulos exchange broke, I was in the House Intelligence Committee’s hearing room, testifying about the “collusion” volume of the Mueller report. Representative Mike Quigley, a Chicago Democrat, took pains to ask me whether, if Russians had reached out to me the way the report indicates they reached out to the Trump camp, I’d notify the FBI.
I told him: Of course I’d notify the FBI.
Unlike the Trump campaign and the Democratic party up until about 2 a.m. on November 9, 2016, I have never “evolved” from the Cold War — I’m more like Putin in that regard. Compared with the Soviet Union, today’s Russia is an epigone; but it is still a formidable adversary with revanchist ambitions and ill intentions toward the U.S. and the West. Plus, here in 2019, I have the benefit of our intelligence agencies’ assessment, the special counsel’s investigation, and congressional probes, all of which conclude that Russia conducted influence operations against our 2016 campaign. It’s not a slam-dunk forensic case, but I’m inclined to believe it. After all, that’s what Russia does.
When Democrats were cheering Obama’s Russia Reset and Secretary Clinton’s collaboration with Putin’s regime in the development of Skolkovo (Moscow’s answer to Silicon Valley), I was one of those antediluvian 1980s guys calling to get our foreign policy back. So yes, I would certainly call the FBI. To my mind, people who believe they are recipients of outreach by a foreign power that means harm to our country should report it to the FBI. It is not a legal mandate; it is being a good citizen.
If a political candidate, including the president, is offered information by a foreign power, what ought to be done depends on the circumstances: Which government? Hostile or allied? What’s the likely motivation for the outreach? Is the information true and authentic? And maybe most important but least discussed question: If we take some action, what are the foreseeable ramifications for U.S. relations with the foreign power and for U.S. operations worldwide?
Here we come to where this goes from quotidian Washington gotcha games to real peril.
One would never know from all the lofty talk about “attacks on our democracy” and the evils of “foreign interference in our elections” that our country — the good ol’ U.S. of A. — is the most active country in the world in attempting to influence the politics, governance, and even the elections of foreign nations. This will be obvious to any Democrat in good standing who fondly remembers President Obama’s efforts to, for example, unseat Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to install the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, to warn Britain off leaving the European Union, and to oust Moammar Qaddafi from Libya under the guise of a U.N. resolution to protect civilians. (Recall that oh-so-hilarious quip from Little Caesar herself, Hillary Clinton: “We came, we saw, he died.”)
As this short waltz down memory lane illustrates, many of our machinations do not go so well. But others, including many that will remain secret for decades because that’s key to their success, are triumphs that contribute to the security and prosperity of the U.S. and the world.
Why would we want to make this vital work more difficult? Foreign governments share intelligence with us freely in the expectation that the sharing will remain confidential. It may be acted on, but not with any trace of where the information came from. The arrangement is reciprocal, enabling us to share intelligence confidentially and without becoming too entangled in another country’s internal disputes. If we start creating duties to report foreign outreach to the authorities, we will inevitably receive less intelligence of many kinds — it will not just be election-related information that is withheld. Moreover, if we create a norm that all foreign efforts to influence another country’s politics and elections are to be seen as hostile provocations, our own efforts to influence events in other countries will be regarded as provocations; American agents will be more aggressively policed, and their missions will become more difficult to accomplish. Why, just for the sake of scoring some transient political points, would we create anti-information norms that simultaneously contradict our society’s commitment to the free exchange of information and undermine our government’s capacity to influence events in the world — events that matter to us?
If President Trump does not think he should report Russian outreach to the FBI, or if the next Democratic candidate thinks it’s worth retaining foreign spies to scour the far corners of the world for dirt on Trump, voters should factor that in for what it’s worth. This is just an educated guess, but I daresay it will not be worth much in the greater scheme of things that cause us to vote a certain way.
Here’s what I am sure of: Whether it is 18 months from now or five and a half years from now, Donald Trump will no longer be president, but the United States will still need both to have lines of open information exchange with foreign governments and to be able to influence events in foreign countries. What is done out of spite today will be back to haunt us tomorrow.
Something to Consider
If you enjoyed this article, we have a proposition for you: Join NRPLUS. Members get all of our content (including the magazine), no paywalls or content meters, an advertising-minimal experience, and unique access to our writers and editors (through conference calls, social media groups, and more). And importantly, NRPLUS members help keep NR going.