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'Dangerous': Democrats Fire Back At Trump Lawyer's Answer On Foreign Interference

White House deputy counsel Patrick Philbin answers a question during the impeachment trial against President Trump.
Senate Television via AP
White House deputy counsel Patrick Philbin answers a question during the impeachment trial against President Trump.

President Trump's legal position welcoming information from foreigners threatens to open Pandora's box in coming elections and nullify one of the key lessons from 2016, critics warned.

"This is setting precedent that is unheard of in our country," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. "It's dangerous, dangerous, dangerous."

She and other members of Congress said they were aghast after Trump attorney Patrick Philbin responded to a question in the president's impeachment trial late Wednesday by saying it would be proper for Trump or another politician to take a tip from a foreigner about a political opponent.

"If there is credible information of wrongdoing by someone who is running for a public office, it's not campaign interference for credible information about wrongdoing to be brought to light," Philbin said.

Congress has limited the ways foreigners can take part in elections — by forbidding them from voting and restricting their contributions — but the idea that simply because "information" originates overseas is a "non sequitur," Philbin said.

Intel vice chair: It's outrageous

Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, who is the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he was "flabbergasted" by Philbin's explanation and worried it might mean open season for election interference by foreign governments already known to be working to influence this year's race.

"The president's counsel ... gave a green light for that kind of behavior to continue," Warner said. "I hope and pray that cooler heads will prevail, but I think there was a dramatic step backwards in terms of protecting the integrity of our election."

Philbin's comments recalled one of the key moments of the Russia investigation involving a meeting in which Trump's top campaign lieutenants met with a Russian delegation that had promised them dirt on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

A Russian attorney brought a tip that has been described as involving alleged impropriety by Democratic donors, but one that Donald Trump Jr., his brother-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Trump campaign Chairman Paul Manafort didn't or couldn't put to much use.

A burning question for the months of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation was whether those men might face criminal charges in connection with the meeting; in the end, they did not.

Mueller's report assessed the complexity of applying U.S. law in that situation, and his prosecutors concluded it was too difficult.

Although it's unlawful for American campaigns to accept a "thing of value" from foreigners, assessing what that means is complex. And Mueller's analysis also concluded that people involved must know they're breaking the law in order to face charges.

In the case of the Trump campaign meeting, the special counsel's office reasoned, neither Trump Jr. nor the others knew enough to realize their actions might violate the law, and accordingly, Mueller's team did not seek an indictment.

Russian cyberattackers stole reams of material from American political targets in 2016 and released it to embarrass them and disrupt the election. This worked to historic effect, but they fenced the material through WikiLeaks, rather than transmitting it directly to American campaigns.

Mueller's investigation concluded that although there were some contacts, he could not establish a criminal conspiracy between Trump's camp and the Russians who interfered in the election.

A passel of Russian intelligence officers and others have been charged in connection with the cyberattacks and other "active measures" targeting the United States.

Lawyer: DOJ said all OK

Philbin addressed the "thing of value" element and the complexity of campaign finance law in his answer on Wednesday.

He reminded senators that the whistleblower complaint that brought the Ukraine affair to light originated as a referral to the Justice Department framed as a campaign finance question.

The president's attorney also observed that the Justice Department formed an opinion on this issue in the Ukraine affair — one supportive of Trump.

Did Trump violate campaign finance law, as that question ran, by asking Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for the investigations he wanted last year? Attorneys at the Justice Department concluded that he hadn't, Philbin observed, and so they considered the matter closed.

Philbin also told senators that in the ABC News interview in which Trump later said he would consider taking information about an opponent from a foreign source, the president didn't rule out telling authorities depending on the situation, but that broadly, acceptance would be copacetic.

"He pointed out in that interview that he might contact the FBI," Philbin said. "He might listen to something. But mere information is not something that would violate the campaign finance laws."

For Democrats, Trump's request of Zelenskiy not only was inappropriate but was an abuse of power so egregious it's the subject of Article I of the impeachment legislation now under consideration by the Senate.

The Senate, where Republicans hold a clear majority, is expected to permit Trump to keep his office.

Critics, including lead impeachment manager Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., argue that the view taken by the Justice Department isn't valid because its boss, Attorney General Bill Barr, is too eager to please Trump.

That's why Democrats had to lead the fact-finding in the Ukraine affair — which Trump and Republicans have criticized as being incomplete and unfair — because, Schiff has said, the Justice Department wouldn't conduct the kind of complete investigation it had when President Bill Clinton was impeached in the late 1990s.

Schiff also warned senators that if Trump keeps his office after this episode, especially following the declaration by Philbin, it'll be even more difficult to conduct an incident-free election this year.

"It's unimpeachable for a president of the United States to say, 'Hey, Russia,' or 'Hey, Ukraine,' or 'Hey, China, I want your help in my election'?" Schiff said. "Because that's the policy of the president ... That's what they call policy. I'm sorry, that's what I call corruption."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Philip Ewing is an election security editor with NPR's Washington Desk. He helps oversee coverage of election security, voting, disinformation, active measures and other issues. Ewing joined the Washington Desk from his previous role as NPR's national security editor, in which he helped direct coverage of the military, intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and more. He came to NPR in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously, he served as managing editor of Military.com, and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.