Trump conveyed his disdain for the bureau’s leadership—officials he appointed—when Stephanopoulos reminded him that FBI Director Christopher Wray had recently testified to Congress that campaigns should report instances of foreign interference in U.S. elections. “The FBI director is wrong, because frankly it doesn’t happen like that in life,” Trump said. What’s wrong is not only saying, as Trump once did, that you’d accept help from foreign countries in an election, but strong-arming them into tarring a political opponent. After he said he’d like China to probe the Bidens, the Federal Election Commission chairwoman, Ellen Weintraub, retweeted a message she’d sent over the summer that it’s illegal to solicit something of value from a foreign national as part of a U.S. election.
“Is this thing on?” Weintraub wrote, cheekily, using a microphone emoji.
Between the entreaties made to China and Ukraine, it’s clear the blowback from 2016 has not made the president any more cautious, and he continues to blur the lines between his own interests and his duties as head of state. Take the batch of text messages released by House Democrats late Thursday night. Right before a July phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Kurt Volker, a former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, sent a message to a Zelensky aide. The note suggests that a summit meeting between the two leaders was conditioned on Ukraine’s willingness to investigate a discredited theory that Russia might not have been the ones that pilfered Democratic emails in the 2016 race.
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Writing that he had “heard from the White House,” Volker told the aide that if Zelensky would agree in the call to “get to the bottom of what happened in 2016,” the administration would “nail down” a meeting between the presidents.
The texts show Ukraine was reluctant to go along with the scheme, which smacks of a quid pro quo. In one note in July, William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat there, wrote that Zelensky was “sensitive about Ukraine being taken seriously, not merely as an instrument in Washington domestic, reelection politics.” Yet Ukraine may have decided that defying Trump is too risky. New reports show that Ukraine’s prosecutor general is reviewing how the country handled an investigation into the energy company Burisma Group, on whose board Hunter Biden sat. That inquiry could ostensibly lead to the sort of renewed investigation into the Bidens that Trump wants done.
There’s no obvious parallel to a president so brazenly enlisting foreign countries in schemes to discredit political rivals. As a Republican candidate in the 1968 presidential race, Richard Nixon took steps to sabotage then-President Lyndon Johnson’s efforts to reach a Vietnamese peace deal. Using private surrogates, Nixon delivered a message to South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu that if he delayed, he might get better terms in a Nixon presidency. Nixon’s aim was to deprive the Democrats of a breakthrough in the war that might tip the election in Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s favor. Johnson would later complain that the ploy amounted to “treason,” as the author John Farrell described in his biography of Nixon.
But Nixon was only a candidate at the time, a private citizen. Trump is a sitting president.
“If you want democracy, hold onto your sovereignty,” he said in his U.N. speech. In the months leading up to that address, we now know, he was compromising U.S. sovereignty and weakening its democracy, all to extinguish the chances of a campaign opponent. In the week after the speech, nothing’s changed.