Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of meeting with some of America’s foremost experts in defending and advancing free and fair elections around the world to discuss their work. Almost inevitably, our focus turned toward the state of American democracy and we commiserated about President Donald Trump’s apparent disdain for the institutions that protect our freedom at home amid a global rise in authoritarianism. We shared our hopes that 2020 might bring a renewal of our democracy that would also help to expand freedom beyond our borders again.
Perhaps, if only for self-preservation, he wouldn’t again encourage, implicitly or explicitly, Russian interference that would distort the will of American voters.
Following the April release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, this hope seemed vaguely justifiable — at least for those who were desperate to feel it. Perhaps, Trump had learned from his brush with the law. Perhaps, if only for self-preservation, he wouldn’t again encourage, implicitly or explicitly, Russian interference that would distort the will of American voters. Perhaps in 2020, Trump would cease to be Trump.
Such optimism couldn’t last long. This week, the president dispelled any such notion by declaring that if he was offered dirt on a Democratic opponent by a foreign agent, he would probably accept it. “I think I’d take it,” the president told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in an interview that aired on Wednesday.
So despite criticism of the fact that neither he nor his campaign reported any of the Russians’ various offers of assistance in 2016 to the FBI, Trump now suggests he’d do it all over again. “The FBI director is wrong,” Trump said, refuting Christopher Wray’s May statement that the FBI would want to know if a foreign power offered assistance to a U.S. campaign.
Wray was not the only one to weigh in. Federal Election Commission Chair Ellen Weintraub issued a statement noting that "Electoral intervention from foreign governments has been unacceptable since the beginnings of our nation."
Trump saying differently is at best astonishingly ignorant and, more realistically, a national betrayal.
If Trump has learned anything since 2016, it’s that he can get away with almost anything, including working with a foreign adversary to influence an American election. Now that Mueller has completed his investigation, Congress continues to display limited willingness to act on his findings — mostly due to Republicans’ shameful betrayal of the Constitution and their oaths of office, in addition to naive caution among some Democrats. Is it any wonder that Trump believes himself to be above the law?
By making these thoughts public, however, Trump is sending a clear message to foreign nations looking for opportunities to trade political favors. He's also normalizing the idea of foreign interference with his base, whose support he’ll need to maintain if the president’s foreign backing continues through potential impeachment proceedings and 2020.
And the stakes for Trump are arguably much higher than they were in 2016. He now faces potential criminal liability once he leaves office related to his obstruction of the Mueller investigation, alleged campaign finance violations, and investigations into his inaugural committee. Plus, his low approval numbers — even amid economic expansion — mean that winning re-election will likely be an uphill battle.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, for his part, knows that a Democratic winner in 2020 would mean certain punishment, likely including harsh new sanctions that could fracture his regime. Thus, the incentives for Trump and Moscow to collaborate to sway our elections are much higher than before. For both, our 2020 election is a fight for survival.
At this moment, the country can still probably look back on 2016 as an anomalous warning to be more vigilant in defense of American democracy, but only as long as it doesn’t happen again. If it does, America is likely to enter a lasting state in which a significant portion of Republicans, Democrats and independents alike no longer trust the fairness of our elections.
If this perception becomes the new normal, or if apathy and a feeling of helplessness become commonplace, it will be even harder to root out and prevent further corruption. Apathy allows leaders seeking to remain in power to more easily manipulate election outcomes, with or without foreign assistance.
For decades, Americans have worked to ensure free and fair elections in faraway corners of the earth, but we must now humbly acknowledge that our own elections are also imperiled and act accordingly. At this point, especially with Trump loyalist William Barr serving as U.S. Attorney General, there is little else law enforcement can do on its own to hold Trump accountable.
It now falls to Congress and the American people to deter the president’s ongoing betrayal and obstruction well before Election Day 2020. If there is any silver lining to Trump’s alarming comments this week, it’s that they laid bare his intention to use whatever resources at his disposal to remain in power — regardless of the people’s will. They should also make clear the urgency with which we must meet this challenge.