It’s time for Congress to draw a red line around foreign attempts of any kind to influence U.S. elections. This should include any solicitation or receipt by U.S. candidates of foreign information harmful to their opponents.
President Donald Trump stepped over that line last week, then partially retreated. We urge him to agree that there should be an absolute ban on foreign assistance to campaigns, as is advocated by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Foreign interests surely will continue to choose sides in American elections, as they often have in the past, and Mr. Graham’s proposal would become part of a much-needed firewall against foreign interference.
Special counsel Robert Mueller minutely documented Russian government attempts to tilt the 2016 presidential election to Mr. Trump, although he found that neither Mr. Trump nor his campaign made any effort to coordinate or collude in this effort. But Mr. Trump’s son responded eagerly to the possibility that a meeting with a Russian lawyer might divulge dirt on his opponent Hillary Clinton, which it did not.
Mrs. Clinton’s campaign quietly solicited dirt on Mr. Trump from foreign sources, including Russian officials, leading to the infamous Steele dossier and its use in an FBI probe of Mr. Trump that is being reviewed by the Justice Department inspector general and at least two U.S. attorneys.
Mr. Trump claimed last week that everyone in politics seeks and receives dirt on opponents whatever the source. But he earned strong bipartisan disapproval when he said, during an interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, “If somebody called from a country ... [saying] ‘We have information on your opponent’ — oh, I think I’d want to hear it.”
He also said if the information came from an adversarial nation such as Russia or China he might or might not report it to the FBI. And he said FBI Director Chris Wray was wrong to recommend in congressional testimony that candidates, campaign workers and public officials automatically report to the FBI any contact “by any nation-state or anybody acting on behalf of a nation-state about influencing or interfering with our election.”
But on Friday he retracted this position, saying he would “absolutely” report to the FBI or attorney general any offer of dirt on an opponent from a foreign nation such as Russia. But Mr. Trump also said he would accept the information. We think that should be forbidden by law.
Existing law prohibiting campaign contributions by foreigners does not clearly prohibit the passing along of information on an opponent, although there is an argument that because candidates pay for opposition research, that could be considered a campaign contribution.
Congress should clarify the law by explicitly defining such information as an illegal campaign contribution.
Sen. Graham has said he is sympathetic to taking such a step. And he said that it would be a mistake to accept such information, declaring: “If a foreign government comes to you as a public official and offers to help your campaign, giving you anything of value — whether it be money or information on your opponent — the right answer is no.”
Sen. Graham also called on all public officials to report to the FBI any direct or indirect offer of assistance from foreign governments. He added that such foreign influences were “growing, not lessening.”
There is a legitimate public interest in allegations of misconduct by candidates for office whether they come from domestic or foreign sources. Changing the law to treat information given to a campaign by a foreign source as a reportable illegal campaign contribution would not prevent the media from independently accessing the information, assessing its legitimacy and reporting its findings. So the public interest would not be damaged by including information in a ban on foreign campaign contributions. Congress should act quickly to close this loophole in campaign law. And Mr. Trump should sign the bill.