Why did President Trump do it?
Why would he create this firestorm over accepting dirt from a foreign government?
Why did he respond — at length — to a hypothetical question from George Stephanopoulos?
Why would he send a message that this was perfectly acceptable after spending two years battling the Mueller investigation, which found that Russia blatantly interfered with the 2016 election but no improper cooperation by Trump or his associates?
Why would dig himself a hole with comments that even some of his strongest media supporters and close allies, like Lindsey Graham, aren’t defending?
In the Oval Office, Stephanopoulos asked Trump whether his campaign, if approached by a foreign government such as Russia or China with information on opponents, should call the FBI.
“I think maybe you do both,” Trump said. “I think you might want to — listen, there’s nothing wrong with listening. If somebody called from a country [like] Norway [and said] ‘we have information on your opponent,’ oh, I think I want to hear it.”
At another point, Trump said that if he was approached, “‘Oh let me call the FBI.’ Give me a break, life doesn’t work that way.”
And: “When you go talk honestly to congressmen they also do it, they always have. That’s the way it is. It’s called oppo research.”
By the way, lots of campaigns take oppo research — which can be perfectly legitimate — but not from foreign regimes.
Sometimes Trump just commits candor, in ways that hurt him politically. In 2017, after the administration argued that he fired Jim Comey based on a Rod Rosenstein memo, he told NBC’s Lester Holt that he would have dumped the FBI director “regardless of recommendation” and was thinking about his role in the Russia probe.
There was a mixture of defiance and exasperation in Trump’s voice as he parried Stephanopoulos, as if he knew perfectly well that the politically acceptable response was “call the FBI,” but refused to play along.
The context is important. The two men started talking about Donald Trump Jr. returning to the Hill for closed-door testimony, which involves the 2016 Trump Tower meeting at which a Russian lawyer claimed to be offering negative info on Hillary Clinton.
So Trump may have been thinking that if he said he’d rush to call the FBI these days, that might have been thrown back at him in his son’s case.
Among those who were puzzled was Fox’s Laura Ingraham, who said that “setting aside the question of why you would have George Stephanopoulos standing over the President in the Oval Office — I don’t know who approved that — but what about this notion of accepting foreign intel about an opponent? Is that a risk for President Trump…? Why he was put in that situation is beyond me.”
But who’s going to tell the president not to do the interview? He doesn’t even have a communications director these days.
Nancy Pelosi had a field day saying “everyone should be appalled” and that Trump “does not know right from wrong,” while Kevin McCarthy looked uncomfortable trying to deflect the questions but admitting he’d call the authorities in such a situation.
Trump tried to clean things up on Twitter yesterday, saying he’s recently met with the Queen of England and leaders of the U.K., Ireland, France and Poland: “Should I immediately call the FBI about these calls and meetings?” He’s obviously conflating everyday diplomacy with the conveyance of dirt.
The president also said “my full answer is rarely played by the Fake News Media. They purposely leave out the part that matters.” I’ve actually seen many news programs play long versions of the Stephanopoulos exchange.
I know some Trump supporters are saying, “Hey, didn’t Hillary pay for the dossier?” and so on. But whataboutism is not going to change what the president said.
I’m not a Trump-basher. On one level, the media uproar may be an overreaction to what was, after all, a hypothetical back and forth with a journalist. There’s no new evidence, incriminating documents or embarrassing emails about any actual contact with foreign operatives.
In any honest assessment, Trump’s words really can’t be defended. At least, in this case, they are just words.