President Donald Trump and his senior advisers moved quickly on Thursday to downplay and muddle his explosive assertion that he might not report to the FBI offers of election help from a foreign entity.
As Trump’s Democratic opponents eviscerated him and one of his leading Republican supporters called his comments a “mistake,” the president tried to recast his remarks, drawing a misleading comparison between accepting dirt from a foreign agent and his recent conversations with Queen Elizabeth and other world leaders.
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“I meet and talk to ‘foreign governments’ every day. I just met with the Queen of England (U.K.), the Prince of Wales, the P.M. of the United Kingdom, the P.M. of Ireland, the President of France and the President of Poland. We talked about ‘Everything!’” Trump wrote on Twitter across a pair of tweets, correcting an initial misspelling of Wales. “Should I immediately call the FBI about these calls and meetings? How ridiculous! I would never be trusted again.”
Every president regularly communicates with other heads of state. Accepting negative information from a foreign agent about a campaign opponent is a different matter, however. It is a crime for a campaign to solicit or accept something of value from a foreign entity, which some lawyers say could apply to information.
Amid the firestorm, Trump and his top aides also turned to a familiar tactic: blaming the media. They argued that the president’s comments were taken out of context, insisting the reporting about his ABC News interview lacked nuance.
“My full answer is rarely played by the Fake News Media,” Trump said on Twitter without offering evidence to support his claim. “They purposely leave out the part that matters.”
Later Thursday, White House spokesman Hogan Gidley echoed Trump’s assertion. “Look, I wish the media would take the time to look at the full clip. I was standing just feet away from the president in is exchange with George Stephanopoulos. It was very clear the president said if there was wrongdoing, of course he’d turn it over to the F.B.I,” he said during an interview with Fox News.
However, the president’s full statement shows he was equivocal about whether he’d alert the FBI if he was presented with damaging information about his political opponents. ABC News later released a full transcript of the interview, which shows the network accurately represented the president’s comments.
Trump scoffed when asked by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos whether his son should have alerted federal authorities when he found out about a 2016 meeting with Russian nationals who claimed to have damaging information about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
“I’ve seen a lot of things over my life. I don’t think in my whole life I’ve ever called the FBI. In my whole life. You don’t call the FBI,” he said, adding later, “Give me a break. Life doesn’t work that way.” He also said FBI Director Christopher Wray was “wrong” for saying that candidates should report to the agency efforts by foreign agents to interfere in an election.
Later, Stephanopoulos asked if he would call the FBI if Russia, China or other foreign entities offered negative information about an opponent. Trump said, “I think, maybe, you do both. I think you might want to listen. There’s nothing wrong with listening.”
Trump’s team has repeatedly been pressed about how to handle foreign offers of campaign help after it became public that his son, son-in-law and campaign manager met in June 2016 with a Kremlin-linked Russian lawyer who claimed to have information about Clinton. Trump’s team has said nothing came of the meeting. While special counsel Robert Mueller found that Moscow interfered in the 2016 election to help the president, he did not find enough evidence to conclude Trump’s campaign colluded with Russians in that effort.
Trump’s comments triggered a barrage of criticism. House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff said Trump’s latest comments “invited” more foreign interference in U.S. elections.
“Our foreign adversaries listen to every president — every word the president of the United States has to say, as we clearly saw when he encouraged the Russians to hack his opponents’ emails and hours later they tried to do exactly that,” Schiff (D-Calif.) told POLITICO. “So I think he has invited another round of interference. As long as it’s to help his campaign, he seems more than happy to engage in any act, no matter how unethical or unlawful.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi also expressed outrage, but signaled Trump’s comments didn’t change her opposition to pursuing impeachment. “Everyone in the country should be appalled by what he said last night, totally appalled,” Pelosi said Thursday.
Numerous Republicans distanced themselves from Trump’s comments on Thursday. Even Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a frequent Trump defender, said the president’s remarks were wrong. “I think it’s a mistake. I think it’s a mistake of law. I don’t want to send a signal to encourage this,” he said.
Trump also sought to shift focus to Democrats, accusing Schiff and Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, of accepting negative information about him without calling the FBI. The pair were both involved in investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Trump did not cite any evidence to support his claim that they did not alert the FBI about information they found.
Rachel Cohen, Warner’s communications director, tweeted that she didn’t know what Trump was talking about. “This never happened,” she wrote.
“The fact is that the phony Witch Hunt is a giant scam where Democrats, and other really bad people, SPIED ON MY CAMPAIGN!” Trump said over two tweets. “They even had an ‘insurance policy’ just in case Crooked Hillary Clinton and the Democrats lost their race for the Presidency! This is the biggest & worst political scandal in the history of the United States of America. Sad!”
Schiff, for his part, was pranked in 2017 by Russian comedians who told him in a phone call that Russia had compromising materials about Trump. However, Schiff, during the phone call, said he would work with the FBI to review the information, according to an audio recording of the conversation released by the pranksters.
The White House said Thursday that Democrats were being hypocritical since Clinton’s campaign was at one time involved in funding research into Trump that eventually yielded a dossier of information about him. The research, which was initially funded by Republicans, wound up in the hands of the FBI.
Cristiano Lima, Caitlin Oprysko and Kyle Cheney contributed to this story.