The argument was put forth by White House deputy counsel Patrick Philbin in response to a question posed by Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) about Trump’s apparent willingness to solicit dirt about his campaign rivals from countries such as Russia and China.
“Mere information is not something that would violate the campaign finance laws,” Philbin said on Wednesday“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.”
Soliciting dirt on election opponents from a foreign government is a crime.
Trump is on trial in the Senate after being impeached by the House for pressuring Ukraine’s government to open an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden that could benefit him in the 2020 presidential election and withholding military aid to the country until it did so.
As Democrats blasted the Trump defense argument about foreign election interference as “shocking” and “extraordinary,” warning it would set a dangerous precedent that could even lead to a banana republic, Republicans maintained that it would be acceptable if the president had good reason to accept such information.
“I think all he was addressing is whether there was a crime and what I understood him to say is, ‘There was not,’” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told reporters on Thursday, referring to Philbin.
Asked if he was comfortable with the Trump argument about accepting foreign dirt in U.S. elections, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said it “all depends.”
“The president is the presidency, everybody reports to him, including the attorney general. Are you saying that the American people shouldn’t know about or we shouldn’t pursue criminal wrongdoing just because it’s overseas?” he asked, suggesting that Trump would be justified in accepting information from foreign leaders that could help him in an election.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, added that he had “no problem” with the argument offered by Trump’s lawyers. He said that the “precedent has already been set” by former Secretary of State and 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and her campaign’s involvement with the so-called Steele dossier. The dossier, a collection of memos produced by former British spy Christopher Steele that included claims about Trump’s ties to Russia, was partially paid for by the Clinton campaign.
But the dossier wasn’t compiled by a foreign government, rather by a U.S.-based opposition research firm originally hired by another Republican presidential campaign in the 2016 political cycle, as well as a conservative outlet.
When Trump told ABC News last June that he would accept dirt on his 2020 opponent from a foreign power and might not tell the FBI that he had done so, Republicans pushed back by saying they would first call law enforcement authorities.
“That’s not the right answer,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said at the time. “A foreign government comes to you as a public official and offers to help your campaign giving you anything of value, whether it be money or information on your opponent, the right answer is no.”
Asked Wednesday about the matter, however, Graham said the argument offered by Trump’s lawyers is “absolutely correct.”
“I believe that if I asked a foreign government to announce an investigation into my opponent where there is no legitimacy, that would be a corrupt act on my part,” Graham said. Graham has maintained it is legitimate to look into Biden’s dealings with Urkaine for possible corruption.
Jim Baker, who served as general counsel to the Federal Bureau of Investigation under President Barack Obama, weighed in on Twitter with a different view: