Everyone is mad that Donald Trump told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, in an interview that aired Wednesday night, that he’d accept dirt on a campaign opponent from a foreign source if it were offered to him again:
I think you might want to listen, there isn’t anything wrong with listening. If somebody called from a country, Norway, [and said] ‘we have information on your opponent’—oh, I think I’d want to hear it. It’s not an interference, they have information—I think I’d take it.
Even leaving aside the issue of Norway’s strange hold over the president’s brain, this is obviously a concerning attitude. While apologists like Sen. Lindsey Graham are muddying the waters by trying to suggest that Stephanopoulos’ question was about learning any piece of candidate-related information from any foreign individual, the context he was obviously referring to was Russia’s 2016 operation, in which a foreign government distributed information about Hillary Clinton that had been obtained illegally and did so in the hopes that it would ultimately be rewarded by her opponent (Donald Trump) via changes to U.S. foreign policy.*
Which is what happened! It worked. It was, in the layperson’s sense, a corrupt deal. Which is why people are mad that Trump said he’d do it again.
But on another level, it’s entirely reasonable for Trump to think that accepting the overt assistance of a foreign government is fine, because both entities that have had responsibility for indicating that it’s not fine—Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation, which was assigned to investigate the 2016 campaign, and the Nancy Pelosi–led House of Representatives, which can impeach the president for “high crimes”—have both declined to punish him for it.
Here’s specifically what Mueller wrote about the June 9, 2016 meeting between three Trump campaign officials (Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort) and Russian individuals who had conveyed through an intermediary that they wanted to pass on material “that would incriminate Hillary” as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
In light of the unresolved legal questions about whether giving documents and information of the sort offered here constitutes a campaign contribution, Trump Jr. could mount a factual defense that he did not believe his response to the offer and the June 9 meeting itself violated the law. Given his less direct involvement in arranging the June 9 meeting, Kushner could likely mount a similar defense. And, while Manafort is experienced with political campaigns, the Office has not developed evidence showing that he had relevant knowledge of these legal issues.
Mueller didn’t prosecute, then, because it’s not clear under existing law whether something intangible like information counts as an illegal contribution. Elsewhere in his report, Mueller implied that the Trump administration’s later efforts to eliminate sanctions against Russia did not constitute criminal quid pro quo coordination because such a charge “requires more than the two parties taking actions that were informed by or responsive to the other’s actions or interests.” What he appears to have concluded is that as long as there is no specific understanding that a policy change is being made as a reward for campaign assistance, there’s no crime.
As for Pelosi, her view on impeachment is well-established: She’s against it because it would be “divisive.” Her response to Trump’s ABC comment was to give a press conference in which she complained that Mitch McConnell isn’t working with Democrats in bipartisan good faith.
In other words, the only things that would disincentivize Trump from pulling a 2016 again are, like, personal propriety and a sense of shame. And frankly I don’t think that’s going to be enough!
Correction, June 13, 2019: An earlier version of this post misspelled Sen. Lindsey Graham’s first name.
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