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Trump is suggesting foreign leaders investigate the Bidens. Is that illegal?

What are the legal and national security implications of President Donald Trump’s encouraging foreign powers to investigate a potential political rival? Judy Woodruff talks to Michael Mukasey, who was attorney general under former President George W. Bush, and Carrie Cordero, a former Justice Department and intelligence official who served in both Republican and Democratic administrations.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Returning now to our main story, the president urging another foreign power, China, to start an investigation into a potential political rival. What are the implications of this, as a matter of law and national security?

    Michael Mukasey was the U.S. attorney general under former President George W. Bush. And Carrie Cordero served in both Republican and Democratic administrations in national security roles at the U.S. Justice Department and at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

    Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

    I'm going to start with you, Attorney General Mukasey.

    Let me just ask first, before we get to oath of office, and ask about the law. Is what President Trump is doing in asking another country to investigate a potential political rival, does that break a law?

  • Michael Mukasey:

    No, the — I think the Justice Department has already opined in the context of the request, such as the — seen to the Ukraine to investigate Biden, as to whether that was a solicitation of a thing of value. I think they said it's not.

    Presidents have been conducting foreign relations — presidents running for reelection, hoping for reelection, have been conducting foreign relations for as long as the country's been around, in the hope of getting reelected.

    Let's — you take a hypothetical. It's got nothing to do with this case. If a president running for reelection asked a foreign power to finance the construction of a hospital in a state where his numbers were not very good, that would not be a thing of value.

    It would be — it would benefit the state. As to whether it would be politically wise or not, that's something else again. But I think it would — the principle is essentially the same.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Carrie Cordero, is this in any regard a violation of law, what the president has done?

  • Carrie Cordero:

    Well, I think what former Attorney General Mukasey is getting at with respect to a thing of value has to do with whether or not we're applying the specific statutory provisions perhaps of campaign finance law.

    But the situation that the country is in right now with President Trump's activities as revealed by the conversation that he had with the Ukrainian president, and then even his public statements today, goes far beyond technical violations of specific statutory visions.

    And, instead, the problem has to do with whether or not he is in violation of the Constitution and of constitutional principles of whether or not he is fulfilling his oath of office, whether or not he is abusing his constitutional authorities to conduct foreign affairs by using that access to foreign leaders to basically work in his own personal interest.

    And so the fundamental question is, is the president, when he's conducting foreign affairs, acting in the United States' interests, or is he using that position to work in the benefit of his own personal political ambitions?

    And that's not an appropriate use of his authority.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Michael Mukasey, what about that?

  • Michael Mukasey:

    That, it seems to me, is up to the voters.

    And if they think he's using his authority in a way that hurts the country, they can express that at the polls. You don't simply take a difference of opinion with what somebody is doing in office and use it as a basis to remove him.

    Now, that said, this is obviously a political process. The standards are political. And the House is not barred from considering his statement today or a statement during that conversation, if they choose to do so, as a basis for impeachment.

    But that doesn't mean that it is properly so considered.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let me just quickly follow up on that, I mean, because what I hear Carrie Cordero saying is that it is not in the interests of the United States of America for President Trump to be asking a foreign leader to assist in his reelection campaign.

  • Michael Mukasey:

    Well, the question is whether he's asking a foreign leader to do something that's in the interest of the United States, i.e., investigate potential dishonesty by a — by a former vice president.

    That — the fact that that may serve his political interests is also true. But the question then becomes whether he's asking for something that is in the interest of the United States or not. Again, I think that's up to the voters.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Carrie Cordero?

  • Carrie Cordero:

    Yes, I'm frankly surprised to hear the former attorney general make these arguments.

    The president should not be using his authority to dig up political dirt on spurious claims against political opponents. That's the stuff of opposition research, perhaps appropriately conducted or at least lawfully conducted by his political operative team here in the United States.

    But by the president's statements and by this open admission that he thinks it's OK to use his position to seek foreign assistance in elections, he just made the job of the U.S. intelligence community and the national security community exponentially harder by them trying to protect the country against foreign influence in our elections.

    And it was just last week that the acting director of national intelligence, Mr. Maguire, said that, in his judgment, the most pressing national concern today in the seat that he sits in now is the integrity of our elections.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, given that, Michael Mukasey, how is this within the purview of the president to do this to, to — again, repeating myself — but to ask a foreign leader to take steps that would help his reelection, and then, by the way, as the president said today, to say, I'm going to be meeting with the Chinese next week, and suggest — and he said, if they don't do what we want, we have tremendous power.

  • Michael Mukasey:

    That, as I said, is a matter for the voters.

    Presidents have been engaging with foreign leaders in aid of their reelection campaigns for decades. They may be explicit about it. They may be implicit about it.

    If he's saying that he's going to use the power of his office against the interests of the United States in order to bring about a result, that's a wholly different thing. That's a misuse of his office. It may not be a violation of law, but it may be something to be considered by an impeachment inquiry.

    But, once again, simply using or asking for a foreign — a foreign country to conduct an investigation that may — that may be warranted is not unlawful. It may be something that people find distasteful, but it is not unlawful.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Are you saying that President George W. Bush did that when he was running for reelection, and, if so, how?

  • Michael Mukasey:

    I'm not — oh, come on. I'm not saying anything of the sort.

    He — that president — when I say presidents conduct foreign relations, I don't mean that they — that they — that they necessarily ask in this way for this kind of thing. That's why I said it may be distasteful.

    But the principle about presidents being able to conduct foreign relations in their interests, so long as it serves the country's interests, is the same character.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Carrie Cordero?

  • Carrie Cordero:

    Yes, I just — I just fundamentally disagree with the with the position that the former attorney general is positing, that a legitimate exercise of the president's foreign affairs power includes asking a foreign government to interfere in our elections when it comes to China.

    I mean, it's basically an open invitation for foreign intelligence services now to do whatever activity they want to do if they think that it will dig up political information that Donald Trump wants.

    And that's not that — that's not an appropriate use of the president's foreign affairs policy. It undermines national security. It means that when foreign governments are dealing with the American president on issues of tariffs, on issues of foreign aid, on issues of defense, they are now in a position where they have to calculate whether or not they should be providing information that assists the president in his political ambitions, vs. what is actually a legitimate exchange between two countries.

    And so there is a difference between a public official acting in their personal interests and potentially holding out leverage of what the U.S. government might be able to provide to them vs. an appropriate exercise of constitutional presidential authority.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we're going to be…

  • Michael Mukasey:

    That's…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You — a very quick response, Mr. Mukasey.

  • Michael Mukasey:

    No, I mean, that — there's — there's a lot of syllables in there, but not a — not a lot of substance.

    The fact is, as I said, that presidents engage in activities that help their reelection. If this activity is offensive, then the voters can reflect that at the ballot box. That's all I'm saying.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A lot of questions here, and we're going to continue to report on all of it.

    Michael Mukasey, Carrie Cordero, thank you both very much.

  • Carrie Cordero:

    Thanks, Judy.

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