Senate

Democrats outraged over White House lawyer’s claim that some foreign involvement in elections is acceptable

Senate Democrats, including the senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, voiced outrage Wednesday night after White House deputy council Patrick Philbin argued that it would be legal for President Trump to accept opposition research from a foreign country.

Sen. Christopher Coons (D-Del.), toward the end of Wednesday’s marathon question and answer session in the Senate impeachment trial, asked Trump’s defense team if such an action would be legal.

Philbin argued “the idea that any information that happens to come from overseas is necessarily campaign interference is a mistake.” 

“That’s non sequitur,” he added. “Information that is credible that potentially shows wrongdoing by someone who happens to be running for office, if it’s credible information, is relevant information for the voters to know about.”

That answer sparked outrage among Democrats.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has been conducting a multiyear investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, said Philbin’s argument “contradicts everything that our committee has said, everything the intelligence community has worked on.” 

“If Mr. Philbin’s argument is accepted at face value that foreign interference is OK unless it violates some nondefined definition of a campaign contribution [is] counter to everything that the intelligence community, our committee and I think others are working on,” Warner said.

“I’m pretty stunned,” he added.

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), another member of the Intelligence Committee, said “I have never heard anyone represent anything close to that in the intelligence community ever.”

“We are encouraged to at all times report even just contact with foreign efforts at interference in our elections or of manipulation of our government activities,” he said.

“This idea that you would take information from a foreign government seeking to impact an election and then weaponize that or use that just because it may be credible — I’ve just never heard anything like that. I think it’s absolutely unconscionable,” he added.

Heinrich said Philbin’s argument could impact how the American public views Trump’s legal team because “this is so counter to common sense for the average American.”

He said the nation has historically done whatever it could to insulate government decisionmaking and elections from foreign influence.

“This basically said throw open the doors,” he said of the White House’s argument.

Trump famously told ABC News chief anchor George Stephanopoulos in July that he would likely accept information provided by a foreign government by a political opponent.

“It’s not interference, they have information — I think I’d take it,” Trump said. “If I thought there was something wrong, I’d go maybe to the FBI — if I thought there was something wrong.”

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), a member of the Democratic leadership team, said “when they doubled down on the fact that it’s alright for the White House, the president of the United States to get dirt on his opponent from another country” because it’s not illegal, “it’s not OK.”

“It’s not legal,” she said. 

Tags Chris Coons Christopher Coons Debbie Stabenow Donald Trump George Stephanopoulos Mark Warner Martin Heinrich

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