Echoing Team Trump, GOP flips on foreign election interference

In June, both parties agreed Trump's position on accepting foreign intelligence as part of a campaign was unacceptable. This week, that unanimity disappeared.
Image: Richard Burr
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) leaves a closed-door GOP caucus luncheon at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014. J. Scott Applewhite / AP
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By Steve Benen

Over the summer, when Donald Trump told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos he'd accept foreign election interference, there was a brief, bipartisan consensus that the president's position was wrong.

Even Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was willing to rebuke his White House ally, telling reporters, "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." Around the same time, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said, "All of us know, if you were to ever be contacted by a foreign entity, your first call is the FBI." Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) added, "I think it's absolutely something I would never do and that no one should do it."

Everyone was on the same page -- until Trump's impeachment trial. Deputy White House Counsel Patrick Philbin this week endorsed his client's view, telling senators that a president can accept "credible information" from foreign sources, and it wouldn't necessarily count as "campaign interference." The lawyer added, "I think the idea that any information that happens to come from overseas is necessarily campaign interference is a mistake."

Yesterday, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wrote, "I still can't believe the President's lawyer tried to convince the United States Senate that foreign election interference isn't a crime." The incredulity is understandable, but as Republican reactions came into sharper focus yesterday, it's worth emphasizing that Trump's defense team didn't just try to convince senators; it seems their efforts had some success. Politico reported:

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said on Thursday he has "no problem" with a White House lawyer's argument that American politicians can accept damaging information on their opponents from a foreign country -- a proposal that shocked Democrats. [...]

"I have no problem with what Philbin said," Burr told reporters.

Seven months ago, senators from both parties agreed that the White House's position on accepting foreign intelligence as part of a domestic political campaign was unacceptable. This week, that unanimity disappeared.

It's worth noting for context that Burr is retiring at the end of his current term, which theoretically suggests he'd have at least a degree of freedom to disagree with his party's president when Trump is wrong. What's more, given that the North Carolinian is the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Burr surely knows that the White House's position on foreign election interference is, in fact, indefensible.

But as of yesterday, it appeared the GOP senator didn't much care.

Asked about his Republican colleagues defending Team Trump's line, Warner added, simply, "God help us."

To reiterate a point from our earlier coverage, it's not unreasonable to be concerned about the near future. We're confronted with a dynamic in which Trump and his legal team have signaled to possible international benefactors that the sitting American president would welcome their interference in his re-election efforts.

As part of this same dynamic, at least some of Trump's allies are also signaling to those possible international benefactors that the American Congress won't act if Republicans welcome and receive foreign intelligence to advance their electoral ambitions.

MORE: Today's Maddowblog