The two and a half years since Donald Trump became president of the United States have been horrifying, terrifying, appalling, and maddening. But you haven’t seen anything yet.
According to some reports, Trump himself was as surprised as everyone else when he won the 2016 election, but as we look toward 2020 the stakes are different. He knows full well that if he is defeated next November, he will forever be known as the one thing he most fears being: a loser. Even apart from the very real possibility that he could be prosecuted for any number of crimes from tax evasion to obstruction of justice, being rejected by the public and cast out of office would be one defeat he couldn’t spin or bluster his way out of.
How far do you think Trump will go to avoid that outcome?
Let’s begin with the most extraordinary news of the past week, that the president of the United States made a public invitation to any foreign power, hostile or otherwise, to meddle in the 2020 election so long as it’s to his benefit. In an extraordinary interview with ABC News, Trump said that if a foreign government offered him damaging information on his opponent—just as Russia did in 2016—he’d welcome it.
Just to be clear, accepting assistance in the form of information from a foreign source (government or not) is illegal. As for the suggestion that if he were approached he should contact the FBI, which handles counterintelligence, Trump was dismissive. “You don’t call the FBI. Life doesn’t work like that,” he said. When George Stephanopoulos pointed out that the FBI director whom Trump appointed, Christopher Wray, has said candidates should tell the FBI if they’re contacted by a foreign source proffering dirt on their opponent, Trump responded, “The FBI director is wrong.”
Had Barack Obama announced in 2011 his intention to accept the help of foreign governments to win reelection, Republicans would have begun impeachment proceedings by that afternoon. While the outrage expressed over Trump’s interview was about one-tenth as loud as it merited, it was still substantial enough for him to feel the need to walk it back a bit, as he later did in the friendly confines of Fox & Friends.
But Trump made sure, just in case Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong Un was listening, that he still wanted the assistance of any foreign dictator willing to give it. He insisted that he’d have to accept the offer first before deciding whether to alert law enforcement. “Of course you have to look at it because if you don't look at it you're not going to know if it's bad. How are you going to know if it's bad? But of course you should give it to the FBI or report it to the attorney general,” he told his favorite crew of nincompoops.
What Trump meant by “bad” was unclear. Did he mean “bad” as in “juicy, scandalous stuff that will really help me if it becomes public”? Did he mean “obtained through criminal means”? And if it’s “bad” does that mean he would report it, or he wouldn’t?
The truth is it doesn’t really matter what he meant, because it’s not as though he considers himself bound by anything he says. What we know is that any foreign government that believes it would be advantageous to keep him in the White House has an incentive to use whatever means are at their disposal to help him get reelected. That could include hacking Democratic systems as the Russians did in 2016, breaking into registration and vote databases at the state and local level, the creation of false incriminating stories about Trump’s opponent, social media campaigns aimed at spreading misinformation, or some new technique we haven’t even thought of yet.
We also know that if he is offered any such help—not just dirt but hacking or a disinformation campaign or anything else—Trump will welcome it gladly.
We also know that not only won’t the Justice Department do much to counter or prevent such attacks on our democratic system, if Attorney General William Barr has anything to say about it the department will do whatever it can to ensure Trump’s reelection.
Barr has already made clear in his short time in office that he is a partisan hack of the first order, willing to do almost anything if it serves the interests of Donald Trump. In fact, a month and a half ago he was asked in congressional testimony whether, if a foreign government contacted a presidential candidate with dirt on his opponent, the candidate should contact the FBI. Instead of answering “Of course,” Barr paused, thinking and thinking as though it were a complicated question.
Arriving at an answer, he finally said that if a foreign intelligence service made the contact, then yes, the candidate should alert the authorities. I’m pretty sure he was thinking, “How can I answer this question in a way that doesn’t imply that there was anything wrong with what my liege did in 2016, nor what he’s planning to do in 2020?” So he found a way: As long as the person reaching out doesn’t say, “On behalf of the FSB and with the compliments of President Putin, I hereby present to you this flash drive,” then it’s A-OK.
And let’s not forget that Trump is already working to secure foreign help for his reelection. He has dispatched Rudy Giuliani to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate a company with ties to Joe Biden’s son, in the hopes that the investigation might produce something that could be used to embarrass Biden. “There’s nothing illegal about it. Somebody could say it’s improper,” said Giuliani with the candor that only comes from believing you can get away with anything. “I’m asking them to do an investigation that they’re doing already and that other people are telling them to stop. And I’m going to give them reasons why they shouldn’t stop it because that information will be very, very helpful to my client, and may turn out to be helpful to my government.”
Are they going to stop there? Of course not. I’m sure there are other governments Rudy will be talking to on Trump’s behalf. And to reiterate, Trump just announced on national television that any foreign government that wants to give him a hand should step right up.
That’s on the foreign front. Domestically, Trump will utilize whatever government resources he can get his hands on to destroy his opponent. We know this in part because he has already tried it. As the Mueller report states, “According to [then-Attorney General Jeff] Sessions, the President asked him to reverse his recusal [from the Russia investigation] so that Sessions could direct the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute Hillary Clinton.” Sessions declined to do so, but does anyone think Barr would say no when Trump makes a similar request about the 2020 nominee?
That’s not if, but when. And there will almost certainly be other ways the administration finds to aid the president’s campaign and undermine the Democratic nominee. These are not people overly concerned with obeying rules and laws. Only one thing matters: Donald Trump must be protected at all costs. To achieve that end, there’s almost nothing they won’t do.