Nearly two years ago, FBI Director Chris Wray set up an office tasked solely with stopping the type of Russian interference efforts that infected the 2016 campaign.
On Wednesday night, President Donald Trump undercut the whole operation in a matter of seconds.
In an ABC News interview, the president first proclaimed he would have no problem accepting dirt on his opponents from a foreign power, then said Wray was “wrong” to suggest the FBI needs to know about such offers.
The comments, according to interviews with nearly a dozen law enforcement veterans, have undone months of work, essentially inviting foreign spies to meddle with 2020 presidential campaigns and demoralizing the agents trying to stop them. And it has backed Wray into a corner, they added, putting him in a position where he might have to either publicly chastise the president and risk getting fired, or resign in protest.
America’s enemies will see Trump’s comments and likely “come out of the woodwork like never before to try to influence the president,” said longtime FBI veteran Frank Figliuzzi, who served as the bureau’s assistant director for counterintelligence until 2012. “And it’s going to be more difficult to defend against because they’ll try harder than ever to mask their attempts.”
Trump has broken all manner of traditional protocol during his presidency when it comes to law enforcement and the intelligence community. His calls early in his administration to launch investigations into his political opponents were widely panned by Justice Department veterans who deemed the Oval Office requests as out of line. But more recently, Trump has found an ally in William Barr, the new attorney general who has taken the president up on his demand for a wider examination into the origins of the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
With Trump’s latest comments, aired Wednesday night, the president has resurrected a question that special counsel Robert Mueller spent nearly two years investigating — is it collusion to accept damaging information on an opponent from foreign agents attempting to interfere in a U.S. election?
“It’s not an interference,” Trump told the anchor George Stephanopoulos, a former Bill Clinton White House communications director. “They have information, I think I’d take it.”
Trump described such offers as “opposition research” and said he’d call the FBI only “if I thought there was something wrong.”
Some linked Trump’s remarks to Mueller’s deliberation over whether his team could have charged anyone on the Trump campaign if they had obtained the promised hurtful information on Hillary Clinton from a Kremlin intermediate during a much-scrutinized Trump Tower meeting. Mueller’s report said he wasn’t sure the potential information had financial value, meaning it might not qualify as an illegal campaign contribution from a foreign entity. The report also raised questions about whether there was a free-speech right to receive the information.