Late into Wednesday’s session of the Senate impeachment trial, Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) asked a question of President Trump’s defense team: did they think foreign involvement in U.S. elections was illegal?
The Trump team’s reply: nope. “Mere information is not something that would violate the campaign finance laws,” responded White House Deputy Counsel Patrick Philbin.
“The idea that any information that happens to come from overseas is necessarily campaign interference is a mistake,” Philbin calmly suggested.
The question was asked with a focus on Trump’s open encouragement of Russian help in the 2016 election. And it was answered against the backdrop of Trump’s impeachment for abuse of power—his attempts to strong-arm Ukraine into investigating his political rival by withholding U.S. aid.
The Government Accountability Office recently found that such withholding was illegal. And federal law prohibits U.S. political campaigns from taking a “contribution or donation of money or anything of value” from foreign entities. The information Trump sought in Ukraine would seem to be quite valuable indeed.
To many senators listening, these arguments flung open the doors for Trump, or any future president or candidate for office, to engage in that kind of behavior again, knowing that it had been defended by White House lawyers on the Senate floor. Earlier that day, Trump lawyer Alan Dershowitz had already gone even further, arguing that Trump could justify his actions with the reasonable belief that his re-election would be in the country’s interest.
“This trial,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), “may be seen as a vindication of those very dangerous ideas that foreign interference can be accepted… that the president can do anything as long as his motives are to re-elect himself, and he thinks it’s in the public interest.”
“It’s Orwellian, is what it is,” added Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), a 2020 presidential candidate.
That Trump would be acquitted at the end of this months-long impeachment process was never truly in doubt. Less clear, however, is what example that acquittal might set for his future conduct, and that of future presidents, on everything from their use of foreign aid to the way they conduct their campaigns.
Some Republicans backed away from these expansive arguments, even if they thought they were not wrong. A vocal defender of the president’s, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), said he thought Philbin had the legal case correct. “Does that mean you should accept [foreign help]?” Hawley asked. “No, I don't think so.”
But most Republicans shrugged, despite the fact that Trump administration officials are already warning about foreign powers such as Russia interfering in the 2020 U.S. elections. Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee that investigated Moscow’s election interference in 2016, said he had “no problem” with what Philbin said.
It’s not hard to imagine the Pandora’s box that such an environment could unleash. Different countries could do battle with each other in the arena of U.S. politics, for example, arming different campaigns with weaponized dirt.
“I hope that candidates would return to the high standard that we should have,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ). “But there may be those candidates in the future who say, I don't believe in unilateral disarmament—that at the end of the day, if they're going to do it, I should be able to do it.”
“Why does a foreign country ultimately get engaged in our domestic elections? Is it about the interests of the American people? Is it about the business of the American people?” asked Menendez. “No. It's about their interests and their business.”
But it’s not only Capitol Hill Democrats that are preparing for a new reality. Whatever the White House says in the face of Trump’s ultimate acquittal in the Senate, U.S. administration officials and foreign officials acknowledge Trump will increasingly manufacture his own foreign policy decisions, with his personal associates, without the input of his intelligence and national security agencies. That means Trump will more likely have the ability to run his personal political errands—and business agenda—with little, if any, scrutiny. And when that scheme falls apart, and Trump’s personal associates turn on him, or decide to detail the behind-the-scenes shenanigans, the U.S. will lose credibility on the world stage.
“We’ve already seen this happen with [John] Bolton,” one U.S. official with an extensive foreign policy portfolio, said, referring to the former national security adviser. “His own officials will go to conferences, or hold meetings, and we’ll be blindsided by discussions the White House has had behind our backs. And how do you think this makes us look? Disorganized for one. But also that we’re a country, or at least a government, divided.”
That new reality is one that’s all but been approved by Republicans in the Senate who are set to sign off on the White House counsel’s argument that President Trump has complete authority to make crucial national security decisions as he sees fit, even if it threatens American interests overseas or runs roughshod over a process his own deputies had put in place.
A large portion of the Ukraine story has focused on how Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and other close confidants such as former Energy Secretary Rick Perry and E.U. Ambassador Gordon Sondland carried out a shadow diplomacy effort to run what Democrats have called a political errand.
And it wasn’t just Trump administration officials that played those roles. Republicans on Capitol Hill, too, engaged with figures who helped spark the Ukraine counter-narratives touted by the president’s defenders to undermine the Ukraine case. As The Daily Beast reported, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), for one, met last May with a former Ukrainian diplomat—Andrii Telizchenko—who once spread the widely-debunked theory that Ukraine worked to assist Hillary Clinton in her 2016 campaign.
Those backdoor, behind-the-scenes efforts have been hailed inside Trump’s inner circle as effective and, despite criticism, appropriate. But career civil servants, including some of the administration's current and former top national security officials, have denounced those efforts in interviews with The Daily Beast, claiming it undermines the well-established interagency process—one that’s meant to act as a safeguard against dangerous ideas and policies moving forward.
National security officials aren’t worried about Trump cutting them out of the foreign policy process because of their egos—thought that’s exactly how the White House counsel described Trump’s “subordinates” this week. They’re genuinely concerned, they said, that the American political system will systematically be compromised by American adversaries and that the foundation of the country’s democracy will be peeled away. And with rogue actors with practically zero experience running the foreign policy channels, off-book, without any oversight, then that scenario—one where the U.S. becomes something of an international cat’s-paw, in a sense—is increasingly likely to happen.
“The acquittal will just be another reminder that that kind of behavior is OK,” one senior U.S. official said. “And what’s scary is that it will have real-time national security consequences.”
One could argue those are already happening. When the Ukrainians refused the demands of Trump’s “three amigos,” the White House withheld weapons meant to help Ukraine combat Russia on the battlefield. Moscow didn’t pounce—this time. Who knows what might happen next?
The Daily Beast reported this week in an interview with former top national security official for Ukraine Oleksandr Danylyuk that the Zelensky administration was in a “panic” when the aid froze. They worried not only that the U.S.-Ukraine relationship might be teetering, but also because the administration desperately needed that funding for its soldiers who are still fighting a violent war with Russia in the eastern part of the country. That assistance had been promised to Ukraine for years, ever since President Vladimir Putin moved to invade Crimea, and the notion that it was suddenly under a question mark only made Ukraine distrust the trajectory of its partnership with America, Danylyuk said.
Perhaps even more concerning to Democrats and national security officials who spoke to The Daily Beast is Trump’s reliance on conspiracy theories to form the basis of his foreign policy objectives. And acquittal, they said, would be a nod to Trump himself that his way of navigating relationships with foreign leaders and countries is not only appropriate, but preferred.
In Ukraine, Trump leaned on Rudy Giuliani to dig up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden, a possible opponent in 2020, and his son Hunter. The former New York mayor forged relationships with Ukrainian diplomats and officials who regularly propagate Russian conspiracy theories. For example, Andri Derkach, who met with Giuliani in December, and another member of parliament, Oleksandr Dubinsky, have claimed that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered in the 2016 election. U.S. intelligence agencies say this is the product of a Kremlin disinformation campaign.
Yet this theory and others were propped up this week by the White House counsel and other Trump-backing Republican senators who, up until the end of the witness vote, raised the possibility publicly that that theory—the conspiracy theory—could be true.
If Democrats held up Trump’s acquittal as a possible enabler of future misdeeds, some Republicans pointed to the intensity of the impeachment investigation and the subsequent trial as a possible deterrent.
“Whatever we think this sets as a precedent going forward, I don't worry about it,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND), who is a staunch defender of the president. “The reason I don’t worry about it is because I think what president, no matter what you think the boundaries are, would ever want to go through this ever again?”