FBI director Christopher Wray said on Tuesday said that if any 2020 presidential campaign is contacted by a foreign agent, it’s “something the FBI would want to know about.”
But would President Donald Trump’s campaign alert the feds if approached by a potential election meddler? It won’t say.
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The Trump campaign did not respond to numerous inquiries about whether it has implemented a policy about foreign interference — including the use of information stolen or hacked by a foreign power and whether aides must formally report outreach from foreigners. Several Democratic campaigns, by contrast, have announced policies on the subject.
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s report documented “numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign,” and argued that Trump’s campaign “expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.” But Mueller found no criminal conspiracy between the campaign and the Kremlin, and Trump allies insist there was nothing unlawful about soliciting or making use of information provided by a hostile nation.
Meanwhile, Wray and other top U.S. officials have repeatedly warned that Russia plans to interfere again in the 2020 election. “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 in January.
Some Trump defenders say that his 2016 campaign was a ragtag, amateurish enterprise plagued by a combination of naivete and ignorance that Russia successfully exploited. But even though his 2020 re-election operation has come to resemble a traditional presidential campaign, it has proved reluctant to address the persistent threat of foreign interference.
“A normal campaign clearly would back down and say, ‘Going forward, we won’t take any foreign information.’ But there is nothing normal about Donald Trump,” said Joe Lockhart, a former White House press secretary and veteran Democratic campaign strategist.
In House testimony on Tuesday, Wray told lawmakers his agency wants to know if a foreign government offers assistance to a presidential campaign in any form, be it opposition research, stolen material, or signal boosting on social media.
“I think my view is that if any public official or member of any campaign is contacted by any nation state or anybody acting on behalf of a nation state about influencing or interfering with our election, then that’s something that the FBI would want to know about,” Wray said.
Several of Trump’s Democratic opponents have already made public pledges not to knowingly use stolen or hacked information. The first to do so was Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who was followed by Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar. Former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Housing Secretary Julian Castro, and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard have also adopted such pledges.
Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez issued an open letter in late April to his Republican counterpart, Ronna Romney McDaniel, asking her to join him in “condemning the weaponization of stolen private data in our electoral process.”
“Under my leadership, the Democratic National Committee will not encourage the theft of private data, nor will we seek out or weaponize stolen private data for political gain,” Perez wrote.
McDaniel responded that “any breach of our political organizations — regardless of party — is an affront to all of us, and we should come together as Americans to prevent it from ever happening again.”
The Mueller report outlined several overtures from Russian agents to Trump campaign aides, including the now infamous Trump Tower meeting between the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, and then Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort with a Russian lawyer who claimed to have dirt on Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. Manafort also took a meeting with his longtime business associate, Konstantin Kilimnik, who has ties to Russian intelligence, and who used the meeting to deliver a peace plan that would have ceded part of Eastern Ukraine to Russia, the Mueller report says.
The Trump campaign has given early signs of a casual approach to foreign contacts. Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale last month delivered a paid speech to a Romanian audience that included politicians and policymakers, according to a Washington Post report, and the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has insisted there is nothing wrong with accepting information from a hostile foreign nation.
“Who says it’s even illegal?” the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, told CNN’s Jake Tapper just over a week after the release after the Mueller report. “There’s nothing wrong with taking information from Russians, it depends on where it came from.”
For Democrats, meanwhile, shunning that type of information is becoming a rallying cry. Lockhart on Tuesday pushed campaign operatives to send tweets indicating they have “never solicited nor received information from Russia or any adversary of the U.S.” along with the hashtag “#everybodydoesntdoit.”
“I have heard from almost every [previous] Republican presidential campaign with people saying, one, they wouldn’t solicit it, and two, they wouldn’t receive it” Lockhart said. “Except for Trump.”