WASHINGTON – Donald Trump on Thursday reignited the political storm that has threatened to engulf his presidency by insisting he has the right to use dirt provided by foreign governments on political opponents without informing the FBI.
In an interview aired late Wednesday by ABC News television, Trump was asked about taking help similar to the research offered by Russian operatives to his 2016 campaign about rival Hillary Clinton.
“There’s nothing wrong with listening,” Trump said, adding that he’d only “maybe” contact the FBI if he “thought there was something wrong.”
When ABC interviewer George Stephanopoulos pointed out that FBI Director Christopher Wray recently said that any foreign meddling in U.S. elections should be reported, Trump responded: “The FBI director is wrong.”
A torrent of criticism erupted Thursday, including from vital Republican ally Sen. Lindsey Graham, who said the president had made “a mistake.”
“I believe that it should be practice for all public officials who are contacted by a foreign government with an offer of assistance to their campaign — either directly or indirectly — to inform the FBI and reject the offer,” Graham said.
Senior Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer called Trump’s comments “shocking.”
“To say that it’s OK for foreign countries to interfere in our elections, with motives that are not what’s in the interest of the American people? Disgraceful,” he said.
“Everybody in the country should be totally appalled,” the Democratic speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, said.
Trump defended himself Thursday, saying that his remarks had been taken out of context and that anyway he talks “every day” with foreign figures.
“Should I immediately call the FBI about these calls and meetings? How ridiculous! I would never be trusted again,” he tweeted.
However, Trump was referring in his tweet to conversations with allies like the leaders of France and Britain, and even Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II.
But on Wednesday Trump was asked about getting assistance from countries like Russia or China, which are seen by the U.S. government as potentially dangerous competitors.
The White House and Republicans argued that Trump was being unfairly singled out when the Democrats had been the ones to make use of the now infamous dossier compiled by a former British intelligence agent, Christopher Steele, in 2016.
Steele talked to Russian sources for the report, which was paid for by a legal firm linked to Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
Filled with explosive and in some cases apparently completely erroneous claims about Trump’s links to Russia, the report was eventually handed over to U.S. law enforcement, adding fuel to a massive official probe led by special counsel Robert Mueller.
“The hypocrisy here knows no bounds,” Trump spokesman Hogan Gidley said, branding criticism of the president “absolutely ridiculous.”
According to Mueller, who completed his probe in April after nearly two years of exhaustive inquiries, Trump’s 2016 campaign had numerous contacts with Russians but the pattern did not amount to proof of a conspiracy with Moscow.
Despite that, Democrats say that Trump’s behavior was suspicious enough to warrant further investigation in congressional committees. A loud minority of lawmakers is even pushing for impeachment.
Trump’s interview with ABC came on the same day his son, Donald Jr., was grilled by U.S. senators about his contacts with Russians.
In June 2016, the younger Trump held a now-infamous meeting at Trump Tower that included his father’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, then-campaign manager Paul Manafort, and a Russian lawyer offering dirt on Democratic nominee Clinton.
Trump declared victory after the Mueller report was released but his latest comments have reignited the controversy just as his 2020 reelection campaign starts up in earnest.
Trump will hold a rally with supporters in Florida to mark the official kick-off on Tuesday.
One of Trump’s fiercest Democratic opponents, House intelligence committee chairman Adam Schiff, called the president’s comments on taking foreign help “a dereliction of duty.”
“The Trump campaign sought such help in 2016, and their candidate just put out word they want more in 2020. It’s up to Congress to put a stop to it,” he said.