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Rep. John Sarbanes On Foreign Election Interference


We're going to focus in now on the consequences of remarks that President Trump made this week in an ABC News interview. Anchor George Stephanopoulos asked the president if it would be OK in the future if his campaign accepted dirt on a political rival from a foreign entity. Let's listen to a bit of that exchange.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If somebody called from a country - Norway - we have information on your opponent - oh, I think I'd want to hear it.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You want that kind of interference in our elections?

TRUMP: 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.

MARTIN: Republican senator and close Trump ally Lindsey Graham had this to say, though.


LINDSEY GRAHAM: 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.

MARTIN: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi says the House will take up legislation that would force candidates to report any such effort to federal law enforcement. Congressman John Sarbanes, a Democrat from Maryland, introduced that measure, and he is with us on the line.

Good morning.

JOHN SARBANES: Good morning.

MARTIN: What exactly is your bill designed to do?

SARBANES: Well, it's pretty straightforward. It basically says that you have a duty to report if you are contacted by a foreign government, foreign national and they want to give you some opposition research or other campaign-related material. You have a duty, immediately, to report that to authorities. Go to the FBI, and tell them what's happening.

And that's all designed to make sure that we're fortifying our democracy and our elections against interference. So it's a very simple, straightforward proposal. Obviously, it's going in the opposite direction of where the president seems to be going. It's breathtaking that he would articulate the position he did the other day.

MARTIN: So just to be clear now, it is illegal to accept something of value from a foreign power in a campaign - direct financial support, for example. But your bill is saying, even if you are just offered it, you have to report it to the FBI, which you currently don't have to do. There is no obligation to do that now.

SARBANES: That's correct. It would put an affirmative duty on somebody to report it, which is really a matter of kind of putting our democracy on red alert, which is really what we should be doing, based on what happened in 2016. We know our - our intelligence community has indicated that 2016 was just a dress rehearsal for what they expect to happen in 2020 coming from the Russians. And Bob Mueller, in his report, identified all the different ways that they can attack our democracy. So this is saying that you've got to make a report of that if somebody approaches you.

MARTIN: Which you just took for granted that people would do previously. But I want to ask, how do you draw a distinction between information coming from a foreign government and a foreign entity? I mean, Republicans point to the so-called Steele dossier, where Fusion GPS and Christopher Steele, who is a former British intel officer, were hired to do opposition research against Donald Trump. Where would that fall under your bill?

SARBANES: Yeah, they are kind of pointing in that direction and trying to establish false equivalency here. I mean, obviously, you want to be on the alert for anything coming in from a foreign source, but here we're talking about the president of the United States saying that he would willingly accept opposition research coming from a foreign government. And that could include a hostile power, as in - I mean, he talked about Norway, but we're concerned about people like Russia like we saw in 2016. Somebody needs to make a report of that.

So we're going to push forward with this legislation in the coming weeks to make it absolutely clear that under American law, you have a duty to report that kind of a contact and to protect your democracy. It's a matter of basic patriotism.

MARTIN: Congressman John Sarbanes of Maryland, thank you. We appreciate your time this morning.

SARBANES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.