Fact Check: Trump Compares Foreign Election Interference To Oppo Research President Trump says he might be open to taking information from a foreign government in a future election, calling it a part of politics. But the law draws a distinction when foreigners are involved.
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FACT CHECK: Foreign Interference And 'Opposition Research' Are Not The Same

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FACT CHECK: Foreign Interference And 'Opposition Research' Are Not The Same

FACT CHECK: Foreign Interference And 'Opposition Research' Are Not The Same

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

President Trump says he would accept information about a political opponent from a foreign government.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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'd want to hear it.

CORNISH: That's the president speaking to George Stephanopoulos of ABC News. Trump also said he wouldn't necessarily tell the FBI about such an offer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: You don't call the FBI. You throw somebody out of your office. You do whatever you...

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Al Gore got a stolen briefing book. He called the FBI.

TRUMP: Well, that's different. A stolen briefing book - this isn't a stolen - this is somebody that said, we have information on your opponent. Oh, let me call the FBI. Give me a break. Life doesn't work that way.

STEPHANOPOULOS: The FBI director says that's what should happen.

TRUMP: The FBI director is wrong.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Well, here is that FBI director, Christopher Wray, testifying before Congress last month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRISTOPHER WRAY: 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.

KELLY: And Attorney General Bill Barr seemed to agree when he was testifying in front of Congress last month. He said information offered from a foreign intelligence service should be brought to the FBI.

CORNISH: Trump's statements to Stephanopoulos echo a remark he made during the 2016 election.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.

CORNISH: The president's critics have long pointed to that moment and a now-infamous meeting between the Trump campaign and representatives of the Russian government offering dirt on Hillary Clinton as evidence that the Trump campaign may have broken the law.

KELLY: So what is the law, and what are the norms that have governed how campaigns deal with overtures by foreign powers? To help us out, we are joined by our national security editor Phil Ewing. And Phil, what does the law actually say?

PHIL EWING, BYLINE: I'll read part of it to you. It prohibits, quote, "a contribution or donation of money or other things of value," close quote - so cash, obviously, but more than that - things like inside information, tips, mailing lists, the kind of thing that we know could be useful in a political context.

KELLY: The intention being to prevent a foreign government from helping pick the president.

EWING: Yeah, that's exactly right. The goal is to stop a foreign government from stopping someone it doesn't want to become president from becoming president or choosing the person it wishes would become president from happening. And we know from the Mueller investigation report that Russia in 2016 did not want Hillary Clinton to be elected, and it did what Donald Trump to be elected. It acted in furtherance of those aims with a big campaign that we've talked so much about since then.

But active measures, as they're called in foreign interference, are not new. They're as old as statecraft. In fact, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were talking about this issue in 1787. So this has been with us for a long time. But the challenge is writing laws that are practically enforceable which can prohibit that activity, protect democracy but which also are enforceable and which don't violate the First Amendment. And as we learned from the Mueller report, one requirement under current law is in order to break it, you need to know that what you're doing is wrong, which is why...

KELLY: Intent matters, yeah.

EWING: Correct, correct. And if the government can't prove that someone who is allegedly taking a donation or material from foreign government knows that they're not supposed to do that, it can't prosecute, which is what happened in 2016 to some of the top people in the Trump campaign.

KELLY: Well, so where does this leave us, Phil? If the president accepted information from, say, Norway, that notorious purveyor of campaign dirt, that would be legal or illegal. Or do we know?

EWING: It could be. A lot of it depends on the breaks. And you know, the interesting thing going forward is that if people, including the president, didn't know before in 2016 that it was against the law to take this kind of support from foreign governments, many Americans know that now. The Mueller report is a New York Times bestseller. We've talked about it a lot. It's in a lot of headlines about Washington stories. So it actually may be more difficult going forward for people to claim in potential cases of prosecutions that they didn't know what they were doing in these situations actually was against the law.

KELLY: In the few seconds we have left, the president came out swinging in his own defense this morning. He tweeted saying, I meet - I talk with foreign governments every day; does that mean I have to call the FBI every single time - not quite the same thing though - right? - Phil.

EWING: It's not because foreign nations share information with the United States all the time for all kinds of reasons, and now Trump is the president. He has an official responsibility. He heads the Defense Department, the intelligence community, et cetera. The issue here is about political campaigns. And as he campaigns in 2020 as president, if this comes up again in the way the president talked about in that interview, this could create a very complicated situation for the intelligence community and law enforcement to try to have to deal with.

KELLY: NPR national security editor Phil Ewing - thank you, Phil.

EWING: Thank you.

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