Clinton says foreign leaders privately offered to endorse her to “stop” Trump. Shouldn’t the IC also investigate what else they might have tried?

Americans are rightly (and almost literally) up in arms about the intelligence community’s (IC) report that Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin tried to influence the U.S. presidential election.   According to that report, the IC assessed that:

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election.  Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.  We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. 

Were the Russians successful?  Eugene Kiely and Robert Farley of FactCheck.org noted in a USA Today story that the “intelligence report takes no position on whether the Russian hacks swayed voters to cast votes for Trump,” and Kiely and Farley likewise said they themselves could not “say whether the information influenced voters,” but they did insist that Trump used the information during the campaign to undermine Clinton.

This raises another interesting question: what about foreign leaders who surreptitiously contact a presidential candidate with the aim of trying to influence the outcome of the election?

Consider this part of the CNN transcript from a March 13, 2016 “town hall” meeting with former Secretary of State turned presidential candidate Hillary Clinton:

CLINTON: Finally, I really believe that there are going to be a lot of arguments to make against him that we can look forward to, I’m not going to spill the beans right now.

But, suffice it to say that there are many arguments that we can use against him.

But, one argument that I am uniquely qualified to bring, because of my service as Secretary of State is what his presidency would mean to our country and our standing in the world.

I am already receiving messages from leaders ­– I’m having foreign leaders ask if they can endorse me to stop Donald Trump.

(APPLAUSE)

I mean, this is up to Americans, thank you very much, but I get what you’re saying.

TAPPER: And can you tell to tell (sic) us who?

CLINTON: Well, some have done it publicly, actually. The Italian Prime Minister, for example.

TAPPER: How about the ones that have done it privately?

CLINTON: No, Jake.

(LAUGHTER)

CLINTON: We’re holding that in reserve too.

[Bold added]

Even though the fact of the “messages” from foreign leaders appears to have given Clinton ammunition to try to denigrate Trump and boost her electability, I take Secretary Clinton at her word that she turned down the offers of assistance.  I am not, however, especially confident that every foreign leader who contacted her simply halted all their efforts to influence the election as Secretary Clinton indicates they so plainly wanted to do.

Don’t we need some transparency here about the activities of these foreign leaders (and the countries they represent) vis-à-vis our election?  I don’t think it would be hard for the IC to provide it.  After all, Secretary Clinton no doubt has a call log that could be examined to come up with a list of the foreign leaders who contacted her.  With such a list, the IC could then apply the same kind of holistic analytical techniques reflected in the unclassified summary report they released about Russia’s machinations.  And with the foreign leaders Clinton referenced, there’s no mystery about their intentions: they wanted to help her and hurt Trump.

But let’s be clear: although it is illegal under U.S. law for foreign leaders to contribute funds to a campaign (or to engage in hacking), I don’t think that any domestic or international law is violated if one merely endorses a candidate as Italy’s Prime Minister chose to do.  After all, as I’ve discussed previously, President Obama sought (unsuccessfully) to influence British voters by making public statements before the BREXIT vote.

Still, what’s troubling here is much the same thing that is disturbing Americans about the Russian scheming: the surreptitious nature of these private foreign contacts in the midst of a hotly-contested and highly-partisan election.  Isn’t it time to “spill the beans” as to who they were?

I also think that if the IC were to undertake this sort of inquiry as to what foreign leaders who opposed Trump might have done, it would help rebut charges of partisanship that seem to be roiling its relationship with the President-elect.  I believe we have a great IC community, but it needs to be very clearly apolitical and even-handed, and must have the confidence of the President.

Again, we need to continue a deep dive into Russian activities – Americans understandably see Russia as a threat – but we ought not to naively assume that they were the only country who might have wanted to shape the outcome of our election.  Only by having all the facts out in the proverbial sunlight can we build an architecture that helps ensure that the outcomes of American elections are free of problematic foreign influences.

Don’t forget to register for the 2017 Duke Law conference “Cyber, Security & Surveillance: Truth & Consequences” on Feb. 24th and 25th.  Agenda and registration information found here.

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