Democrats reacted angrily to White House lawyer Patrick Philbin’s argument on the Senate floor that it is not a campaign violation if a foreign power offers information about a person running for political office, as long as that information was “credible.”
“If there is credible information, credible information of wrongdoing by someone who is running for a public office, it’s not campaign interference for credible information about wrongdoing to be brought to light, if it’s credible information,” Mr. Philbin said.
“So I think that the idea that any information that happens to come from overseas is necessarily campaign interference is a mistake,” he said. “That’s a non sequitur. Information that is credible that potentially shows wrongdoing by someone who happens to be running for office, if it’s credible information, is relevant information for the voters to know about, for people to be able to decide on who is the best candidate for an office.”
Mr. Philbin’s comments came in response to a question from Sen. Chris Coons (D., Del.), who asked whether President Trump agreed that foreigners’ involvement in American elections is illegal.
As Mr. Philbin spoke, some senators in the chamber has strong reactions. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who is running for president as a Democrat, threw up his hands and whispered to a neighbor. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) said people around her were dumbfounded, turning to their neighbors to confirm that they’d heard Mr. Philbin correctly. “They said, ‘Did you hear that? Did I hear that right?’ ” Ms. Stabenow said.
“This is the United States of America,” she said. “We do our elections, the American people are the ones that vote. We’re not allowed to take money from foreign entities, foreign individuals that aren’t American citizens….You can’t take something from someone that’s not an American citizen in terms of a contribution. This is stunning, and it will be interesting to see if they try to clean it up.”
Shortly after Mr. Philbin spoke, the Senate recessed for 15 minutes, and Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, stalked over to where reporters waited behind a rope line, his voice taut with anger.
“I think I just heard the president’s counsel basically say, ‘It’s okay’ “– for foreign governments to interfere in U.S. elections –“which I think contradicts everything that our committee has said, everything the intelligence community has worked on.” Mr. Warner said. “I’m pretty stunned.”
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D., N.M.) pulled aside Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin (R., N.Y.), an adviser to the president’s legal team, and urged him to listen to a recording of Mr. Philbin’s argument, if he hadn’t heard it yet.
“It should be basic common sense that we should not be weaponizing information from foreign governments and encouraging their manipulation of our elections,” said Mr. Heinrich. “…That’s absolutely bonkers, or immoral and wrong and we shouldn’t even be discussing it.”
Mr. Heinrich said it’s a slippery slope that immediately leads to: “Well, I thought it was credible, so I thought I had a responsibility to share this with the American people so that they can make a decision.”
He added, “There’s a reason why Americans try to insulate ourselves from the manipulations of foreign governments in elections, he said, “and we should maintain that.”
“This is just stunning, stunning,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a Democratic presidential candidate.