This week, the Senate will begin the impeachment trial of Donald Trump for a historic second time. Regardless of the outcome of the trial that will center around Trump’s role in stoking the violent mob of his supporters that assaulted the U.S. Capitol, this will undoubtedly become a central part of Trump’s legacy.
Yet, there is another part of Trump’s legacy, currently overshadowed by these horrific events and the impeachment trial, that could ultimately serve to endanger America just as much for years to come—inviting foreign interference in American democracy.
As Donald Trump’s tenure as President came to a close last month, it ended where it began: emboldening foreign powers to meddle in American politics. Early in his Presidency, Trump signed an Executive Order that prohibited his political appointees from lobbying their agencies for five years after leaving office, and imposed a lifetime ban on lobbying for foreign governments. Trump appointees even had to sign a pledge agreeing to the ban. But, on his last day in office, in one of his final acts as President, Trump revoked the ban, allowing any of his political appointees to become lobbyists for whomever they wish, including foreign governments.
On one hand, this merely allows Trump appointees to join a foreign influence industry in the U.S. that is already filled with former high-ranking government officials and former Members of Congress from both Parties. On the other hand, revoking this prohibition is the culmination of a Presidency that, from beginning to end, welcomed foreign interference in the U.S. political process.
Trump’s dismantling of the barriers erected to insulate America from foreign meddling began during his campaign to become President. In the summer of 2016, evidence emerged that Russian operatives had hacked the e-mails of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta. Instead of shunning foreign interference in American democracy—as has been the expectation of all American politicians since President George Washington warned of the “insidious wiles of foreign influence” in his Farewell Address—Trump took the unprecedented step of publicly inviting more interference, asking Russia to “find” 30,000 of Hillary Clinton’s e-mails. The Russian’s did, in fact, begin attempting to hack into Clintons e-mail servers that very same day.
This apparent violation of campaign finance laws that prevent foreign nationals from contributing money or things of value to U.S. elections, was just the beginning of Trump’s forays into foreign meddling. Just weeks after Trump asked Russia to hack into Clinton’s e-mails, his son and members of his campaign met at Trump Tower with a Russian operative who promised to provide incriminating information about Clinton. Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was also in regular contact with Russian and Ukrainian operatives throughout the campaign.
All of this, of course, is chronicled in painstaking detail in the Mueller report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. Yet, despite this stain on Trump’s Presidency and the intelligence communities’ assessment that Russia worked to aid Trump’s campaign, Trump still actively sought out foreign actors willing to interfere in American democracy to his benefit throughout his term as President. Most infamously, he attempted to cajole Ukrainian leaders into smearing the son of his political rival, Joe Biden, which ultimately led to his first impeachment. And he similarly called on China to investigate the Biden family as well.
In addition to these high profile calls for foreign interference in American democracy, the Trump campaign and administration hired more individuals who would ultimately be indicted for violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) than any other administration in U.S. history, including Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Elliott Broidy and Rick Gates. In the last weeks of his administration, Trump doubled down on destroying the barriers to protect American democracy from foreign interference by pardoning all of his former associates who had been convicted of violating FARA. This set the terrible precedent that those loyal to the President can secretly make millions working for foreign powers or collude with foreign agents to interfere in American elections without fear of facing the consequences for their duplicitous behavior and completely undermining years of work at the Department of Justice to better enforce FARA.
Trump too, broke the law and violated more than two centuries of his predecessor’s efforts to insulate American democracy from foreign interference. And, just like the people he pardoned, Trump will likely face few, if any, consequences for repeatedly inviting foreign meddling in the U.S. political process. Part of Trump’s legacy, then, is that he let a nation born from resistance to undue foreign interference become more susceptible to foreign interference than at any time since its founding.
Trump did not make America great again, but he did make foreign interference in America great again.