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Once Again, Impeachment Trial Raises The Topic Of Receiving Info From Foreigners

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Can an American politician accept information from a foreigner? That question has been at the heart of U.S. politics now for years, and it still isn't resolved. It is also part of the ongoing impeachment trial of President Trump. Trump's lawyers are arguing, in short, that the answer is yes - but it is complicated.

NPR's election security editor Phil Ewing is here to explain.

Hi, Phil.

PHIL EWING, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So let's go to how this is playing out in the Senate trial. Last night, President Trump's lawyer Patrick Philbin talked about it this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PATRICK PHILBIN: 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.

KELLY: Phil, I'm having flashbacks of Robert Mueller listening to that, the Russia investigation - 'cause this question was so central then.

EWING: It sure was, and we spent a lot of time waiting for the answer. Now, U.S. law says a politician can't accept what it calls, quote, "a thing of value" from a foreigner, which could theoretically include information because we know that can cost a lot of money to develop. But one of the lessons from the Mueller investigation is that this law is difficult to actually apply.

In one case, some top-ranking officials in Trump's campaign in 2016 met with a Russian delegation, and they got a tip. And that led to question as to whether they might face charges. They did not. And one reason was Mueller's prosecutor said it's very difficult to assess what that thing of value practically means, and another was that the law says you have to know you're breaking the law in order to face charges. And if people may know that now, especially people in political life, Philbin's answer underscores the complexity of the difference between what he called credible information and this thing of value.

KELLY: OK. To focus on now and the Ukraine case, we know that President Trump asked the president of Ukraine for investigations that might help Trump in the 2020 election. Wouldn't that be a thing of value?

EWING: Not according to the Justice Department. And as Philbin pointed out, the origin of the Ukraine affair was with campaign finance law. The Justice Department was asked whether Trump might have been soliciting an improper contribution from Ukraine's president in that conversation you referenced. And it concluded that the answer was no, and it didn't pursue the matter. As Philbin and the president's supporters observe, Ukraine also didn't agree to the investigations that he want, so there was no contribution in that sense.

KELLY: Where are election security advocates on this? I'm guessing they do not agree with those statements you just quoted.

EWING: (Laughter) That is correct. They say that Philbin is dead wrong. And they also say that this back-and-forth causes a problem. There could be even more interference in the coming year's election because of the level of attention this is getting from the impeachment. Here was Mark Warner. He's the Democratic vice chairman on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK WARNER: The president's counsel tonight, in a sense, gave a green light for that kind of behavior to continue. I hope and pray that cooler heads will prevail, but I think there was a dramatic step backwards in terms of protecting the integrity of our election.

KELLY: Although worth sticking for a moment with that last point of Senator Warner's - because there have been proposals to change campaign and election laws.

EWING: There have. And there have been proposals by him. And also, Congress has been acting on this. They've allocated more funding for election security. Practices are changing. Our correspondents have been doing a series of stories about this, and officials tell them that they're working together better than they ever have on every level. But legislation that might change the law with respect to this topic - about what information is or what a thing of value is - hasn't actually been passed into law yet. It was an area of deep disagreement before now. And what this Philbin episode underscored is it's probably going to stay that way, at least, potentially, through the rest of this year.

KELLY: A fascinating conversation to have unfolding in the middle of a presidential election year. That is NPR's Phil Ewing.

Thank you.

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