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Why Trump’s view of accepting foreign opposition research is ‘textbook illegal’

President Trump has caused a new outcry by declaring that he would accept information about a political opponent provided by a foreign government. The admission comes after Robert Mueller warned of significant Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign. Yamiche Alcindor reports, and Judy Woodruff talks to former federal prosecutor Shan Wu and Trevor Potter of the Campaign Legal Center.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Special counsel Robert Mueller made clear in his only public appearance since his report that Russia's interference in U.S. elections is a concern for all Americans.

    But, as Yamiche Alcindor reports, President Trump has now cast doubt on a key part of that premise.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    A stunning admission:

  • President Donald Trump:

    It's not an interference. They have information. I think I would take it.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    In an exclusive interview with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos, President Trump said he would accept information on political opponents from a foreign government.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I think you might want to listen. I don't — there's nothing wrong with listening. If somebody called from a country, Norway, we have information on your opponent. Oh, I think I would want to hear it.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Last month, the FBI director said, if offered dirt by foreigners, candidates should contact the FBI.

  • Christopher Wray:

    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.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Today, the president defended himself. He compared his recent meetings with the queen of England with receiving politically damaging information from foreign adversaries. Mr. Trump tweeted: "I meet and talk to foreign governments every day. Should I immediately call the FBI about these calls and meetings?"

    The reaction on Capitol Hill was mixed. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a close ally of Mr. Trump, said the president's comments were a — quote — "mistake."

  • Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.:

    If 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.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina backed the president.

  • Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C.:

    If the information is valid, it's a matter of corroborating it.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Democrats said Mr. Trump's stance threatens U.S. national security.

    Virginia Senator Mark Warner, ranking member on the Senate Intelligence Committee:

  • Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.:

    The fact that this president has so little moral compass or understanding of the need to protect our nation, that he says he would still welcome information from Russia, China, or any other potential adversary if it helps his political campaign is outrageous.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said today the president is ignoring his oath of office.

  • Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D- Calif.:

    Once again, over and over again, that he doesn't know the difference between right and wrong, and now to invite further involvement of foreign governments into our election. There was an assault on our democracy.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    But she added, this alone wouldn't lead to immediate impeachment proceedings.

    Mr. Trump has openly solicited information about his political opponents from foreign governments before.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 e-mails.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    In July 2016, then candidate Trump requested that Russia release the e-mails Hillary Clinton deleted from her personal server when she was secretary of state.

    Nearly two years later, special counsel Robert Mueller charged 12 Russian intelligence officers with hacking the Democratic National Committee and Clinton's presidential campaign to help the Trump campaign.

    Meanwhile, The New York Times is reporting the Department of Justice is seeking to interview CIA officers. The effort is said to be part of the administration's probe into the origins of the Russia investigation.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Yamiche Alcindor.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    To dig into all of this, I'm joined by former federal prosecutor Shan Wu. We should note he represented former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates in the Mueller investigation and prosecution. And Trevor Potter, he served as general counsel to John McCain's 2000 and 2008 presidential campaigns, and is founder and president of the Campaign Legal Center.

    And we welcome both of you to the "NewsHour."

    Trevor Potter, I'm going to start with you.

    Before we get to what the president is saying today about foreign information, what exactly is opposition research? How does it work in a typical campaign?

  • Trevor Potter:

    In a typical campaign, a firm is hired, or an individual, usually an outside consultant, to go online and Google and pull up whatever information they can find about their opponent.

    Sometimes, you do it actually on your own candidate to know what's out there. But the point is, it's basic research for which the campaign pays, and it gives them information to use to attack their opponent.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so, Shan Wu, this is something virtually every campaign does. They check out their opponents, and they check them out in great depth.

    But what about when foreign actors or foreign governments get involved? How typical is that?

  • Shan Wu:

    Well, that's not very typical.

    So, under the campaign finance laws, what's illegal is accepting a thing of value without declaring it. So, in the allegations around the president, it's a little bit in the gray area, because it's not that they actually gave money to him or offered to give money, but, rather, it's just information.

    One of the red herrings that's emerging is, you hear the president and other Republicans talking about the Steele dossier. And it's important, as Trevor was just mentioning, to realize, in that instance, Steele was actually working for a U.S. entity doing the opposition research. So it wasn't a foreign agent or a foreign government involved.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so you're saying that's a gray area?

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Shan Wu:

    That part is not gray. That's normal to do.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Normal to do. I have got it.

  • Shan Wu:

    Right. Yes. Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    OK.

    Well, I want to get to that in just a minute.

    But, before I do, Trevor Potter Russia, are examples of foreign — I mean, we're hearing it's not typical. Are there examples in American history of foreign governments providing information, knowingly or not?

  • Trevor Potter:

    Well, starting with the founders, who were greatly concerned about foreign interference in U.S. elections, there are examples going all the way back to the early days of the country where foreign governments tried to influence our elections. It was a scandal. The French envoy was thrown out of the United States for trying to do that.

    In terms of the specifics here, I think it's important to remember that the Justice Department's special counsel report specifically says that providing anything of value to a U.S. candidate from a foreign country, a foreign state, is illegal.

    And anything of value, the Mueller report says, would specifically include confidential information. And the Mueller report says that's actually more central valuable than giving the candidate some money, because it's something they probably couldn't otherwise get.

    So we already know that taking something or soliciting something from a foreign government is, in fact, illegal. The Mueller report went on to say they were not going to prosecute the Trump campaign or Don Trump Jr., who met with the Russians, who had promised information.

    And Mueller says that's because, we can't prove that he knew it was illegal at the time. But that's very different than where we are now, when we have the statement in that report that says the standard here is, the law says you can't take anything from a foreign government, anything of value.

    So I suspect the president, in making his comments, had not consulted his lawyers, had not been advised by them. And he clearly would be, I think, making a legal mistake if he went forward with talking to a foreign government about this.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Shan Wu, do you agree with that? If the president did as he said in that interview with George Stephanopoulos — he said, I would — sure, I would — in so many words, I would take information from a foreign government.

    Would that be considered legal or not?

  • Shan Wu:

    Textbook illegal.

    He would basically be admitting to having committed a crime. That's exactly the scenario that Mueller faced with Don Jr. And if I were the prosecutor, I probably would have brought that case against Don Jr.

    But, certainly, the Mueller team was facing a political hot potato.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Shan Wu:

    It was the president's son. They were concerned that, most importantly, I think, he didn't actually receive the information that would have been of value, so it looks more like an attempted crime.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It looked like he was trying to get that information.

  • Shan Wu:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Trevor Potter, should there be clearer guidelines than there are right now about this? I mean, you had the president, Trump as a candidate — we just heard it again — saying to the Russians, if you can find Hillary Clinton's e-mails for me, please do.

  • Trevor Potter:

    Well, it seems to me that the FBI director has been pretty clear in saying that if a U.S. campaign is contacted by representatives of a foreign government on campaign matters to give them specifically dirt on an opponent, then they should tell the FBI.

    Whether it is necessary to write that into the law, as some members of Congress have proposed, is, I think, today an open question. I would have thought, after the Mueller report, that the standard was pretty clear here and candidates would understand they shouldn't do this.

    Even if there was murkiness about what happened in 2016, there is no such murkiness, I think, today after that. But, given the president's comments, maybe we do need to clarify the law and specifically say anything of value includes information about the campaign and the candidate and their opponent that is offered or provided by a foreign government or a representative.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Shan Wu, what about that? Do you have an idea of what the law could be, should be, if they were to pass a law to make this clearer?

  • Shan Wu:

    I agree with Trevor that one would have thought that it was already clear, but, in light of what's happened, in light of what the president is saying, I would take it a step further.

    I think it's better to have a rule that simply says the campaigns must report any contact with a foreign agent, a foreign government.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Any contact?

  • Shan Wu:

    Any contact, just as we do when I was federal employee on our background checks. We have to disclose our foreign contacts. That would remove the discretion from the person receiving the information.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Very quick last quick, Trevor Potter, about this federal agency, independent agency, today saying that Kellyanne Conway has violated the Hatch Act and should leave the White House.

    Explain quickly what violation she supposedly is guilty of. And where do you see that going?

  • Trevor Potter:

    Well, it's important to remember the Hatch Act is there specifically to prevent executive branch employees from politicking as part of their job. If they want to do that, they can do it on their own time, but not at work and not in their official capacity.

    What happened here is, there have been a series of complaints against Kellyanne Conway, some filed by my organization, the Campaign Legal Center recently, saying she is, in fact, campaigning on the public taxpayers' dime, and that's specifically prohibited by the Hatch Act.

    And the organization, the special counsel there, agreed with that and reprimanded her and asked the White House to reprimand her before, and today has said, you know, she's done it again. There is no sign at all that she's following the law, and she is not above the law.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, of course, we know the White House is saying they don't agree, and they're not going to fire her. So we will continue to watch that.

    Trevor Potter, Shan Wu, thank you both.

  • Shan Wu:

    Good to be here.

  • Trevor Potter:

    Thank you, Judy.

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