Rudolph Giuliani, President Donald Trump’s private lawyer, has been soliciting a foreign investigation of the president’s political opponents.
Though he has been temporarily shamed out of making a trip to Ukraine, Giuliani has met multiple times with a Ukrainian prosecutor. And he has made it clear that the Trump forces, who publicly requested and privately accepted assistance from Russian agents in 2016, are prepared to broaden their international outreach in the 2020 campaign. It’s unknown what exactly Giuliani is offering in return for this valuable political gift.
The effort can draw support from a once unlikely source: the U.S. Department of Justice.
U.S. law contains what the Federal Election Commission calls a “broad prohibition on foreign national activity” in American elections. Foreigners are not only prohibited from contributing money or any “thing of value” to a campaign, they are prohibited from making any expenditure at all “in connection with any federal, state or local election in the United States.”
The June 9, 2016, meeting at Trump Tower between the top leadership of the Trump campaign and Russians who had offered to provide derogatory information on Hillary Clinton was explicitly organized as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” The meeting was not just a measure of how eagerly Trump’s senior aides, including members of his family, would compromise basic campaign ethics. It was also, as special counsel Robert Mueller’s report states, an act that “implicates” campaign-finance law.
Mueller clearly saw the legal implication, but he was unwilling to pursue a criminal indictment. “Schemes involving the solicitation or receipt of assistance from foreign sources raise difficult statutory and constitutional questions,” the report states. “The Office ultimately concluded that, even if the principal legal questions were resolved favorably to the government, a prosecution would encounter difficulties proving that Campaign officials or individuals connected to the Campaign willfully violated the law.”
Mueller’s notion that the meeting didn’t represent a “willful” transgression is strange. A month after the meeting, Donald Trump Jr. was vehemently denouncing as “lies” claims that he knew to be quite true: that Russia desired a Trump victory and was working toward that end.
In a notoriously leaky campaign, the Trump team managed to keep the June 9 meeting secret for more than a year; it didn’t become public until July 2017. Then President Trump personally dictated a lie about it. If the Trump aides were so naive, why did they lie — and keep lying?
Prosecutors must use discretion, and Mueller may have correctly gauged that the limited utility of the Russian information would make it difficult to convict members of the Trump team. Under normal circumstances, a judgment call like that might not matter much. But with a president who refuses to acknowledge either that Russian sabotage occurred or that it was wrong, and who appears determined to exploit foreign actions again, present circumstances are anything but normal.
Instead of safeguarding the republic against another foreign intervention into a U.S. election, the newly Trumpified Justice Department appears to be reorienting itself to welcome and justify the next attack. In his Senate testimony on May 1, Attorney General William Barr all but invited criminal manipulation.
Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware asked the attorney general this: If North Korean intelligence officers were to offer a U.S. campaign dirt on their opponent, should the campaign contact the Federal Bureau of Investigation?
This was not a trick question. North Korea is a barbarous regime that tortures and murders its own people while perpetually threatening other nations. Yet the law maintains that even Canadians are “broadly prohibited” from providing a “thing of value” to a U.S. campaign.
Barr paused, treading water, seemingly unsure how to answer. Finally, he allowed, “a foreign intelligence service, yes.”
There is nothing in U.S. law stipulating that only intelligence services are barred from such actions. The nation’s highest law enforcement officer was defining law downward in real time. It wasn’t an isolated comment. Barr was similarly unwilling to defend the law when Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska asked him whether a foreign enemy of the U.S. could put campaign operatives on retainer and send them off to volunteer for a U.S. campaign.
Sasse’s hypothetical, one of few questions posed by a Republican on the panel that was meant to solicit information rather than advance false narratives, was based on the real-life example of Trump campaign chairman and convicted felon Paul Manafort. In 2016 Manafort joined the Trump campaign while deeply in debt to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, whom Sasse called a “bad dude” with “no alignment with the interest of the U.S. people and our public.”
Again, Barr demurred. “It depends on the specific circumstances,” he said. “It’s a slippery area.”
Before Barr slithered away, Sasse tried to recall the attorney general to his duties.
“You’re the chief law enforcement officer of the United States Government, and I think it would be helpful for us to have a shared understanding as we head toward the 2020 election of what campaign operatives should well understand is beyond the pale,” Sasse told Barr. “I think we need a lot more clarity about it.”
Barr could scarcely have been clearer. Presumably to excuse the corrupt conduct of the Trump team, past and future, the attorney general delivered a veritable shout-out to Vladimir Putin, Saudi torturers, Chinese spies and sundry international thugs to join the party in 2020. As Giuliani seeks foreign accomplices to political treachery, the attorney general gave such efforts his tacit approval.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.