Russia. Ukraine. China. Bolton account highlights pattern of Trump welcoming foreign political help.

June 18, 2020
In The News

While running for office in 2016, Donald Trump asked Russia to hunt for the emails of his Democratic rival and touted documents stolen by Russia intelligence agents that had been published by WikiLeaks.

Last year, he requested “a favor” of the president of Ukraine, asking him personally for an investigation into his likely 2020 opponent, former vice president Joe Biden, which could have benefited Trump politically.

Now, a forthcoming book by John Bolton, President Trump’s former national security adviser, asserts that Trump in 2019 also asked Chinese President Xi Jinping for electoral assistance, suggesting Xi use China’s economic power to help him, “pleading with Xi to ensure he’d win.”

Bolton’s account highlights Trump’s pattern of welcoming foreign political help and a casual comfort with what was once unthinkable in American politics — foreign intervention in U.S. elections.

 

His description of Trump’s request of Xi drew rebukes from Democrats and muted responses from Republicans, but no calls by lawmakers for another impeachment inquiry or additional investigations amid Washington’s political stalemate.

Experts fear that Trump’s behavior may embolden nations to try to sway U.S. voters in the 2020 campaign — particularly if foreign leaders conclude that helping lift Trump to a second term would be an effective way to curry favor with the White House.

“Foreign governments are increasingly testing us, looking to intervene in the 2020 campaign,” said Trevor Potter, a former Federal Election Commission chairman, who is working with a new bipartisan group to monitor threats to this year’s election. “It becomes all the more likely if the president is not fighting foreign influence in campaigns, but rather is inviting it.”

Trump has called Bolton “a liar” and said in a series of tweets Thursday that his book is “made up of lies & fake stories.”

 

U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer, who attended the June 2019 meeting with Trump and Xi, told a Senate committee Wednesday that it was “absolutely untrue” that Trump requested election help from the Chinese leader.

Alyssa Farah, a White House spokeswoman, says Trump “never asked China to interfere in the election.”

“Nobody present, other than John Bolton, says that took place,” she said.

The White House on Thursday declined to comment on whether Trump in general is opposed to foreign help for his campaign.

While Trump’s past outreach to foreign powers for political assistance triggered widespread condemnation, he has not suffered serious consequences.

His entreaties to Moscow as its operatives were seeking to disrupt the 2016 campaign — “Russia, if you’re listening,” he famously said — were scrutinized as part of the nearly two-year-long investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

The special counsel described a campaign that was intrigued by Russian overtures and “expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts,” but his investigation did not establish that the campaign conspired with the Kremlin.

The president’s efforts to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky led to his impeachment by the Democratic-controlled House — and then his acquittal by the Republican-led Senate.

The new account from Bolton, which appears in his new book,The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir,” appears likely to have even less impact.

Republican leaders, who chose not to seek Bolton’s testimony during Trump’s Senate impeachment trial, were largely silent about his claims Thursday.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who has previously been critical of foreign influence, noted Thursday the conflicting accounts about the Xi conversation and told reporters he had no reason to doubt either Bolton or Trump.

 

“You’re not there, you don’t know,” he said. “It’s a book. People write things in books, but how are we, if you’re not physically there to hear and see it, how can you possibly opine on something [if] you weren’t there?”

Only Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, the lone Republican who voted to convict Trump and remove him from office during the Senate impeachment trial, called Bolton “credible” and bemoaned that his fellow Republicans did not join him in seeking Bolton’s testimony about Ukraine earlier in the year.

“I wish we had a trial with the people testifying under oath,” he told reporters.

 

Bolton’s new allegations come as experts warn Russia, China, Iran and other countries have been stepping up their efforts to interfere in U.S. elections. In public testimony to Congress last year, Mueller warned that Russia had not given up its efforts to manipulate America’s democracy.

 

“They’re doing it as we sit here, and they expect to do it in the next campaign,” he said.

At a hearing Thursday with executives from major social media companies to discuss election security, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) said that “malicious actors, including Russia but also others, persist in attempts to interfere in our political system in order to gain an advantage against our country and to undermine our most precious right — that to a free and fair vote.”

In an interview, Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security secretary under President George W. Bush, said Thursday that there is “a high likelihood” that China, Russia, North Korea and Iran will “attempt to manipulate us with disinformation in order to affect the election.”

Still, he said that he does not believe Trump’s reported entreaty to his Chinese counterpart will increase that risk.

 

“I don’t think the Russians or Chinese need any encouragement to interfere” in the U.S. campaign, Chertoff said.

In his book, Bolton writes that Trump persistently downplayed concerns about foreign election interference, apparently because he was worried that acknowledging Russia’s efforts would undermine his 2016 victory.

When Trump prepared to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki in July 2018, Bolton says that he prepared a written statement outlining U.S. objections to Russian election interference, thinking Trump could hand the paper to Putin in his one-on-one meeting and avoid a lengthy discussion of the subject.

“Trump made several changes to it, reflecting his general unease with the subject,” Bolton writes. “Ultimately, Trump decided not to use the document. He wanted me to raise the subject of election interference, which I said I would do in the scheduled working lunch, but obviously I wouldn’t be in the one-on-one with Putin he wanted so much.”

 

At a news conference following the meeting, Trump stunned observers when he noted that his own intelligence community had concluded Russia interfered in the election but that “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”

“I have President Putin — he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this. I don’t see any reason why it would be,” Trump said. He later said that he misspoke.

Bolton writes that he was concerned that China, which he said is engaging in “one of the broadest influence operations ever undertaken,” would eclipse Russian efforts in 2018.

He writes that Trump also grew increasingly concerned that China might be engaged in an effort to hurt the GOP in the congressional midterms and “more important (to him) as working for his defeat in 2020.”

Mark Medish, who served on the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton, said that “perhaps Bolton’s most salient revelation here is about the vast scale of China’s election related influence operations aimed at 2018 and 2020.”

 

“From what Bolton writes, it sounds as though the U.S. electoral system ought to be preparing to withstand campaigns of maximal digital havoc unleashed from abroad,” he said.

When pressed about the subject publicly, the president has been repeatedly unwilling to reject foreign political help.

In a June 2019 interview with ABC News, Trump said that he would not necessarily alert the FBI if he were offered damaging information about his opponent by a foreign government to use in the 2020 election. “It’s not an interference, they have information — I think I’d take it,” he said.

In October, as the impeachment inquiry heated up, Trump told reporters that he thought China should investigate Biden.

“If they were honest about it, they’d start a major investigation into the Bidens. It’s a very simple answer. They should investigate the Bidens,” he said at the time.

His comments came less than four months after Trump and Xi met at the annual Group of 20 meeting in Osaka, Japan.

During a bilateral meeting on June 29, Bolton writes, Xi complained about critics of China in the United States, a comment Trump appeared to assume referred to his Democratic opponents.

“He then, stunningly, turned the conversation to the coming U.S. presidential election, alluding to China’s economic capability to affect the ongoing campaigns, pleading with Xi to ensure he’d win,” Bolton writes. “He stressed the importance of farmers, and increased Chinese purchases of soybeans and wheat in the electoral outcome. I would print Trump’s exact words but the government’s prepublication review process has decided otherwise.”

Bolton’s account drew outrage from Democrats. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, noted in a tweet that if members of Congress “repeatedly solicited foreign countries to help our re-election campaigns, we would go to prison.”

Indeed, it is illegal for a U.S. political campaign to accept contributions from foreign donors.

But charging and prosecuting a candidate for accepting nonfinancial assistance is complicated, legal experts have said.

In his report, Mueller noted that campaigns routinely pay for opposition research and therefore derogatory information about a political opponent could be considered a “thing of value,” and hence essentially an illegal campaign contribution. However, he wrote that the interpretation could raise First Amendment concerns.

“Those questions could be especially difficult where the information consisted simply of the recounting of historically accurate facts,” he wrote. “It is uncertain how courts would resolve those issues.”

Such issues become even trickier when evaluating a president accused of shaping foreign policy with his own electoral prospects in mind — leaving impeachment by the House and conviction by the Senate as the Constitution’s primary remedy for a president who has abused his office.

Potter said that, in the meantime, Bolton’s account of Trump’s appeal to the Chinese presents another worry: that a private request to a foreign leader for political assistance could leave the president susceptible to blackmail. Trump’s reported appeal, he said, is itself “a security threat.”