WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic lawmakers accused President Donald Trump on Thursday of giving Russia the green light to interfere in the 2020 U.S. presidential race, while a top Republican ally said Trump was wrong to say he would accept political dirt from foreign sources.
The uproar followed televised comments in which the U.S. president told ABC News he would be willing to listen to such damaging information about political opponents as he seeks re-election.
“I think you might want to listen, there isn’t anything wrong with listening,” Trump said in an interview aired on Wednesday.
“It’s not an interference. They have information, I think I’d take it. If I thought there was something wrong, I’d go maybe to the FBI - if I thought there was something wrong.”
Trump’s comments came less than three months after Special Counsel Robert Mueller submitted a report that found Russia waged a hacking and influence campaign to help Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.
Democratic lawmakers roundly condemned the remarks. “What the president said last night shows clearly, once again, over and over again, that he does not know the difference between right and wrong,” said U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress.
While some 2020 Democratic presidential candidates renewed their call to impeach the president, Trump’s comments did not seem to move House Democrats who have been on the fence closer to initiating impeachment proceedings.
Trump’s statement drew a rebuke, however, from one of his closest allies in Congress, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham.
“I think it’s a mistake,” said Graham, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
He accused Democrats of having accepted damaging information from foreign nationals on political opponents and said any public official contacted by a foreign government with an offer of help to their campaign should reject it and inform the FBI.
House of Representatives Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said he was confident Trump was speaking hypothetically. Others prominent Republicans were outspoken in their discomfort, without naming Trump.
“It is never appropriate to allow a foreign government or its agents to interfere in our election process. Period,” said Republican Senator Mike Rounds.
Mitt Romney, a senator and former Republican presidential candidate, said it was “unthinkable” to accept adverse information on a political opponent from a foreign source. “It would strike at the very heart of our democracy,” he said.
Senate Democrats failed on Thursday to ram through legislation requiring U.S. presidential campaigns to report to the FBI offers of help from an agent of a foreign government. The move was blocked by Republicans who control the chamber.
Senator Mark Warner, who pushed the legislation, recalled Trump’s “Russia, if you are listening” call for Moscow to dig up Clinton’s missing emails during the 2016 campaign.
“The President has given Russia the green light to interfere in the 2020 election,” Warner wrote on Twitter earlier.
Any foreign contribution of “money or other thing of value” violates U.S. campaign finance law. Legal experts say knowingly soliciting information from a foreign entity would also be illegal.
In a statement on Twitter prefaced with the comment: “I would not have thought that I needed to say this,” Federal Election Commission Chair Ellen Weintraub warned political campaigns not to accept foreign help, saying it risked putting them “on the wrong of a federal investigation.”
An FBI counterintelligence investigation of Russian election activities in the 2016 presidential election sparked Mueller’s probe, which confirmed U.S. intelligence agencies’ findings that Russia worked to help Trump win.
Mueller, whose investigation examined a 2016 meeting at Trump Tower that Trump’s campaign had with Russians promising dirt on Clinton, did not charge Trump campaign staff who attended the meeting.
Trump defended his remarks in a flurry of tweets on Thursday morning in which he said it would be “ridiculous” to report his contacts with foreign leaders to the FBI.
The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee expressed alarm at Trump’s comments.
“The president has either learned nothing in the last two years or picked up exactly the wrong lesson - that he can accept gleefully foreign assistance again and escape the punishment of the law,” Representative Adam Schiff said.
Democratic presidential candidates who renewed calls for Trump’s impeachment included U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand and U.S. Representative Eric Swalwell.
“A foreign government attacked our 2016 elections to support Trump, Trump welcomed that help, and Trump obstructed the investigation. Now, he said he’d do it all over again. It’s time to impeach Donald Trump,” Warren said.
Reporting by Richard Cowan, Doina Chiacu, Susan Heavey, Susan Cornwell, Makini Brice, Ginger Gibson; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Bill Trott and Peter Cooney