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Does the GOP Care That Trump Doubled Down on Taking Foreign Dirt?

If the president won’t dismiss the notion of accepting foreign intel in 2020, Republicans need to take a stand

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty

WWhen the founders of the Constitution huddled together to create the democratic framework for a still-nascent America, they butted heads on a number of matters: slavery, religious freedom, the role of voters, the power of the presidency. But there was one area where they reached consensus. Absolutely, under no circumstances, should foreign powers be granted any influence over an election.

“Foreign powers… will not be idle spectators,” warned Alexander Hamilton. “They will interpose, the confusion will increase, and a dissolution of the Union will ensue.” James Madison, in arguing for Congress to hold the power of impeachment, feared that a president “might betray his trust to foreign powers.” George Washington argued that “foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.”

This was absolutely a top concern of the founders, and they embedded safeguards into the Constitution to limit such problems. But Donald Trump’s recent comments to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, where he said he would probably accept foreign intel on his political rivals, show the limits of those safeguards — and ratify the founders’ worst fears.

Trump baldly claimed that he would welcome interference from a foreign power in the next election. He said that were a foreign government to offer him intelligence on a political opponent, he would unhesitatingly accept it. He dismissed the idea that he should immediately report such entreaties to the FBI. Given a chance to clarify his statements on Friday morning, Trump simply said that he’d report foreign dirt to the FBI only if it was incorrect.

Parties are supposed to be the gatekeepers of democracies. They’re supposed to screen out malevolent actors.

Now, to be clear, these sentiments are hardly new from Trump. After all, he did publicly beg Russia to hack material on Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election. And as the Mueller report details, there were a great many efforts by the Trump campaign to solicit the assistance of Russia and WikiLeaks to leak dirt on his political rival, and even to coordinate campaign activities around the release of such leaks. The Mueller report stops short of calling this activity criminal, but as Fox News analyst Andrew Napolitano notes, dirt on a rival candidate is something of value to a campaign, and for a campaign to receive something of value from a foreign source is indeed a felony. Trump has indicated that he’s very open to doing this again.

The question now is how should the political system respond. Of course, Democrats have pounced on Trump’s statements. Republicans have had something of a mixed response so far, with Mitt Romney issuing a strong criticism, a few other GOP officeholders offering more modest rebukes, others just hoping the issue goes away, and still others using the opportunity to attack Democrats. The Chair of the Federal Election Commission issued a statement that foreign contributions are illegal.

The public rebukes of Trump are important here for the sake of American democracy. Trump just told foreign governments that he would welcome their help in the next election; those government need to be told that this is illegal and unwelcome and that Trump’s statements were an ill-considered rant rather than the policy of one of America’s two major political parties.

But we should not expect that these rebukes will change Trump’s behavior, as he has had several years to grow into this position and learn the norms associated with it. He is either uninterested or unable to do so. National political leaders have a much more serious task before them: limiting Trump’s time in office.

Impeachment and removal would be wholly appropriate here just based on Trump’s recent comments — the Constitution’s principal author made the case that soliciting foreign influence was grounds for impeachment — but House Democrats have been wary, so far, in pushing a process that would very likely end up in a Senate acquittal. Voters denying Trump a second term would, of course, serve these purposes, but there’s no reason to expect that voters would reject Trump because of his invitation of foreign interference. And voters might well decide to keep him in office, as they do for almost all incumbents during growing economies.

But, in reality, the onus for holding Trump accountable lies with the Republican Party. Some Republicans have warned that holding the President accountable in any way prescribed by the Constitution would cause some sort of a constitutional crisis and grind the federal government to a halt. But they can do this in a much cleaner and easier way; they could simply refuse to nominate him for a second term as president. This wouldn’t require any intervention by the legislative or judicial branches at all. Trump’s nomination in 2016 was hardly universally embraced within the party; some, like Romney, Ted Cruz, and Lindsey Graham, said that Trump was wholly unfit for the office. Others claimed that he could grow into the job.

Parties are supposed to be the gatekeepers of democracies. They’re supposed to screen out malevolent actors. The reason would-be authoritarians like Charles Lindbergh, Huey Long, and Henry Ford never mounted serious presidential campaigns was that the national political parties shut them out.

This would be an excellent time for the Republican Party to show that kind of strength and make up for its past errors in judgment. It would be an excellent time for leaders like Romney or John Kasich to endorse an existing Republican presidential candidate like Bill Weld or to announce a campaign of their own.

There are all sorts of reasons why this isn’t likely to happen, given the nature of where the party is, what kind of strengths modern parties actually have, and who comprises its most passionate supporters. But it’s also a rare way to resolve our current crisis without creating further ones.

Seth Masket is a professor of political science and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver.

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