What do Queen Elizabeth II and Vladimir Putin have in common?
Well, according to President Donald Trump, there is no difference between having a chat with Britain's queen and accepting dirt about a political opponent from the Kremlin.
When asked, in an astonishing interview with ABC News, whether he would welcome campaign help from an adversary like Russia or China, Trump said, "I'd take it." He denied this amounted to election interference.
More to the dangerous point, he scoffed at the idea of reporting such foreign intervention to the FBI, saying he might or might not report it to the bureau. When reminded that FBI chief Christopher Wray says foreign meddling should be reported, the president snapped, "The FBI director is wrong."
Then, in the most delusional outburst of all, Trump tweeted Thursday that he met and talked to "foreign governments" every day, including his recent visit with the British monarch. "Should I immediately call the FBI about these calls and meetings?" he wrote. "How ridiculous!"
By Friday, under growing criticism, the president was backpedaling, saying he would "absolutely" report dirt dug up by a foreign country. But given his fierce rhetoric to the contrary, why should anyone believe him?
This has chilling implications for the 2020 campaign.
For one thing, if the president really can't tell the difference between the queen and Vladimir Putin (or Xi Jinping), then this signals a serious state of mental decline.
Think about it: On the one hand, the 93-year-old monarch, smiling sweetly next to a scowling Trump in an ill-fitting tux at a state dinner at Buckingham Palace. On the other, a Russian leader who is holding U.S. businessman Michael Calvey hostage on trumped-up charges, whose security forces jail journalists on planted evidence, who is still abetting war crimes in Syria, who is partnering with China to challenge America, etc. etc.
Could the president please specify the similarities?
Equally chilling, the interview makes clear that Trump views himself—and his family—as above U.S. law, which makes it a crime for a candidate to accept anything of value from foreign governments or citizens for purposes of winning elections.
Most disturbing, the president is practically inviting Russia, and other foreign troublemakers, to meddle in 2020. "He's enticing foreign adversaries to hack us in order to help their favorite candidates," says Clint Watts, a noted expert on cyber-espionage and counterterrorism and current fellow at Philadelphia's Foreign Policy Research Institute.
"He is increasing (the risk of) everything you are trying to defend against," adds Watts.
Even some of the president's strong supporters are disturbed by the contradiction. "If a public official is approached by a foreign government offering anything of value, the answer is no—whether it be money, opposition research," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) on Thursday.
Moreover, the president's disdain for the FBI—in rebuffing the current director, whom he appointed—undermines the law enforcement agencies tasked with keeping our elections safe. "Inside the agencies, if you are working on the foreign-influence task force, for sure it undercuts the force," says Watts, a former FBI special agent.
"They'd have to worry whether they would be investigated by Trump," Watts adds. He is referring to the push by the White House to probe the work of the FBI and CIA in launching the Russia inquiry.
Indeed, Trump, and the GOP, have tried to rebuff criticism of his behavior by accusing Democrats of doing the same during the 2016 campaign.
But the example they constantly cite—the dossier of alleged Trump ties to Russia gathered by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele—is a red herring. It bears no comparison to Trump's green light to foreign election meddling (or his 2016 encouragement to Russia to hack Hillary Clinton's emails).
Steele was working for a U.S.-based research firm, not a hostile government. And the firm was first hired to do "oppo research" on candidate Trump by a conservative news outlet opposed to Trump, before the Clinton campaign took over the contract.
And most important—when Steele found possible ties between Trump and the Russian government, guess what he did? He turned the information over to the FBI, as U.S. law requires. And as Trump says he might not do.
Instead, the president attacks the FBI and investigations of his 2016 campaign.
So we are left with the spectacle of a leader who encourages adversaries to undermine our elections. Who says politicians do this all the time. Who sees nothing wrong with skirting U.S. laws.
When asked if politicians always took campaign help from foreign adversaries, Sen. Joni Ernst (R., Iowa) snapped: "No we don't. Let's stop there. No we don't." Yet the GOP appears ready to let Trump troll the next election.
So keep in mind pictures of Putin and Queen Elizabeth side by side. And the fact that Trump sees no difference between accepting campaign help from the former and diplomatic chitchat with the latter.
Call the FBI on "information" from Moscow? "Give me a break," says the president. "Life doesn't work that way." Maybe not for Trump, who stands ready to sell out his country and its laws for his own gain.