WASHINGTON – Last night, during the Senate impeachment trial of President Trump, U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.) asked the Counsel for the President whether President Trump believes that foreign involvement in American elections is illegal.
Chief Justice Roberts read Senator Coons question aloud, saying: “The question from Senator Coons to the President’s counsel is this: The President’s brief states ‘Congress has forbidden foreigners’ involvement in American elections’ however, in June 2019 President Trump said that if Russia or China offered information on his opponent ‘there’s nothing wrong with listening’ and he might not alert the FBI because ‘Give me a break, life doesn’t work that way’. Does President Trump agree with your statement that foreigners’ involvement in American elections is illegal?”
Patrick Philbin, a member of the President’s legal defense team, said: “Mr. Chief Justice, Senator thank you for the question. I think Congress has specified specific ways in which foreigners cannot be involved in elections. Foreigners can’t vote in elections, there are restrictions on foreign contributions to campaigns, things like that. When the whistle-blower originally made a complaint about this July 25th call, and that was reviewed by the Inspector General for the intelligence community, he framed that whistle-blower’s complaint and wrote a cover letter framing it in terms of those laws. And he said, there might be an issue here related to soliciting foreign contribution to the campaign, a thing of value, foreign campaign interference. That was specifically reviewed by the Department of Justice. The Department of Justice concluded that there was no such violation here. So that is not something that is involved in this case.
President Trump’s, the interview with ABC that you cited, does not involve something that is a foreign campaign contribution, something that is addressed by the laws passed by Congress. He was referring to the possibility that information could come from a source. And I think he pointed out in that interview that he might contact the FBI, he might listen to something. But, mere information is not something that would violate the campaign finance laws, and if there is credible information, credible information of wrongdoing by someone who is running for a public office, it’s not campaign interference for credible information about wrongdoing to be brought to light if it’s credible information. So, I think that the idea that any information that happens to come from overseas is necessarily campaign interference is a mistake. That’s a non-sequitur. Information that is credible that potentially shows wrongdoing by someone who happens to be running for office, if it’s credible information, is relevant information for the voters to know about for people to be able to decide on who is the best candidate for an office. Thank you.”
Read Senator Coons’ response to Philbin’s answer here
“The President’s brief states, ‘Congress has forbidden foreigners’ involvement in American elections.’ However, in June 2019, President Trump said that if Russia or China offered information on his opponent, ‘[t]here’s nothing wrong with listening,’ and he might not alert the FBI because: ‘Give me a break. Life doesn’t work that way.’ Does President Trump agree with your statement that foreigners’ involvement in American elections is illegal?” Coons asked.
Senator Coons’ question quotes the President’s counsel’s brief from page 100, which cites the statute prohibiting solicitation of anything of value from a foreign national, directly or indirectly, in connection with an election (52 U.S.C. § 30121). As the President’s counsel is present in the Senate impeachment trial to represent the President, his answer to this question will have important implications for future elections and whether we should expect the President to seek or accept foreign help.
On several occasions, President Trump has encouraged foreign interference in American elections:
In July 2016, President Trump, in response to a question about reports that Russia was behind the theft of emails from the Democratic National Committee, said, “Russia if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing” from Hillary Clinton’s private email server.
In June 2019, President Trump said that if Russia or China offered information on his opponent, ‘[t]here’s nothing wrong with listening,” and that, “if somebody called from a country, Norway, [and said] ‘we have information on your opponent’ – oh, I think I’d want to hear it.” President Trump also stated that he might not alert the FBI because: “Give me a break.”
In July 2019, President Trump demanded, over the phone, that Ukrainian President Zelensky “do us a favor” by opening an investigation into President Trump’s leading political opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Russia is preparing to attack our 2020 elections, which has been confirmed by several members of President Trump’s own administration:
In January 2019, then-Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told the Senate Intelligence Committee: "We assess that foreign actors will view the 2020 U.S. elections as an opportunity to advance their interests," Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told the Senate intelligence committee. "We expect them to refine their capabilities and add new tactics as they learn from each other's experiences and efforts."
In July 2019, FBI Director Chris Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee: “The Russians are absolutely intent on trying to interfere with our elections,” adding that “until they stop they haven’t been deterred enough.”
In July 2019, Special Counsel Robert Mueller told Congress: Russia is “doing it as we sit here, and they expect to do it during the next campaign.”