During an interview, President Trump said that if he were offered damaging information on his political rivals from a foreign government he might accept it and not inform the FBI. Since Trump is Trump, he also asserted that he thought that in such a case a person should maybe accept the information and contact the FBI. Laying aside the problem of trying to determine Trump’s definitive position on this matter, there is the general question of whether political candidates in the United States should accept damaging information provided by foreign governments or foreigners.
From a legal standpoint, there is some debate about whether accepting such information would run afoul of election law. Foreign nationals are forbidden from providing contributions, donations, other expenditures or exchanging any “thing of value.” The problem arises because “thing of value” is vague. On the one hand, damaging information could obviously be politically valuable to a campaign and would thus seem to fall under the law. On the other hand, one could argue that while such information would be useful, it is not a thing of value in the same sense as money or providing advertisements for a candidate.
I think that such information should be considered a thing of value; this is because the law is aimed at preventing foreign interference in our elections and providing such information would be providing something potentially valuable (opposition research is expensive) that is aimed at interfering with an election. One could also make the sophist argument that since political spending has been ruled to be speech, then it would follow that political speech is also money—so providing political information would be the same as providing political money. This argument is, of course, easily countered by distinguishing between the “is” of predication and the “is” of identity.
I am certainly willing to listen to someone arguing against me and contending that if China’s intelligence agency provided Joe Biden with damaging information about Trump, then this would be legally fine. As far as resolving the legal matter, I suspect that there will court cases arising out of the 2020 election addressing it. But what of the moral issue?
One way to offer a moral defense of accepting such information is to argue that if the information is true and relevant to the candidate’s suitability for office, then the source is irrelevant. For example, imagine that a Democrat has rigged a primary so that she wins and the Russians hack into her email and find out about it. If this information is given to the Republican running against her and he uses it, this seems morally acceptable: the information is relevant and true. Obviously, knowingly using false or irrelevant information would be morally wrong. For example, imagine that a Democrat gets an email from Russian intelligence claiming that Trump runs a sex-slave ring out of the basement of a McDonald’s in Tallahassee and decides to use the information. Since it is not true, using the information would be morally wrong. Unless, of course, one could make a utilitarian argument about the ends justifying the means.
It can be countered that even if the information provided is true and relevant, it would still be wrong to accept it from a foreign power or national. Such an argument would be built on the idea that an election should be limited to the influence of citizens of the United States and that accepting foreign help contaminates the process. This could be seen as a matter of fairness analogous to that of sports: a football team would be wrong to accept a stolen playbook provided by fan. It can also be seen as a matter of integrity: the election is our business, not the business of foreigners. There is also the obvious concern of ongoing foreign influence; that a candidate would be indebted to foreigners or that they would have blackmail material to use against them.
Because of these considerations, I disagree with what Trump might have said. That is, I hold that accepting damaging information from a foreign power would be wrong and that such efforts should be reported to the FBI. I hold to this whether the information aids the Democrats or the Republicans.