NOEL KING, HOST:
President Trump said something in an interview with ABC News last night that's raising some eyebrows. The president said that he sees no reason not to accept information from a foreign government in an election, and he added that he might not report this kind of information, foreign information, to the FBI. Here's the president in that interview.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It's not an interference. They have information. I think I'd take it. If I thought there was something wrong, I'd go, maybe, to the FBI, if I thought there was something wrong. But when somebody comes up with oppo research, right, they come up with oppo research - let's call the FBI. The FBI doesn't have enough agents to take care of it. But you go and talk honestly to congressmen, they all do it. They always have. And that's the way it is. It's called oppo research.
KING: NPR's national security editor Phil Ewing is in studio. Hey, Phil.
PHIL EWING, BYLINE: Good morning.
KING: So what the president was calling oppo research is shorthand for opposition research. What is the difference between opposition research, which he says everyone does, and foreign interference?
EWING: Opposition research is one of those things you'll hear political professionals, pollsters and operatives call part of the dark arts of politics. It's where, for example, let's say you're a Republican. You're running in a primary against another Republican. And you know, based on the track record of your opponent, that something might have happened in the past that could be embarrassing to him or her. You might arrange for that information to find its way into the hands of the press, for example, or to appear on TV or to give to some other political figure to try to benefit you. And this practice, as the president describes, is not common but not uncommon in politics, especially at the national level because the stakes are so high. There are so many highly paid professionals who can become involved, and they spend their days ginning up this material to try and give their own candidates as much of an advantage as they can.
The foreign interference that we saw in 2016 is different, among other reasons, because it's being done by a foreign government - in the 2016 case, by Russia's military intelligence agency, the GRU. And it was, in some cases, stealing information with cyberattacks from targets in the United States - the Democratic National Committee, Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman and others. And then in a pretty systematic fashion, trying to get that out into the body politic, releasing it through WikiLeaks and other sources, to try and embarrass these targets and change the political situation in the U.S. So the president's point is that there's information changing hands here in a political context. But the nature of that information and the way it's done is quite different.
KING: So the thing that you're pointing out, the distinction you're drawing, is that foreign interference is not a small deal. It is not a regular thing that happens. It is, in fact, the focus of the Mueller report, in the special counsel's investigation, right?
EWING: That's right. That's right. And one of the episodes described in the report, and which has been recounted in great detail, is a meeting taken in June of 2016 by the president's son, Donald Trump Jr., and a couple of other top campaign officials with a Russian delegation in New York City who had offered them dirt on Hillary Clinton. And they gave to Donald Trump Jr. a tip that they said involved some money moving out of Russia into the Democratic campaign committees via some fundraisers that are opponents or disliked by the Russian regime. And what we've learned since then is that Trump Jr. and the other campaign officials didn't really do anything with that tip that they got.
The question before the Mueller report was released was, was that a violation of the law? These kinds of tips from foreigners are illegal in U.S. elections. And what we learned from the Mueller report is that you have to know you're breaking the law at the time you take that information in order for it to be a crime. And accordingly, Donald Trump Jr. and these other Trump aides were not charged.
KING: OK. But this leads us to a really important question, which is, is what the president's suggesting - suggested last night he might take information, might not report it to the FBI - would that be illegal if he were to do that?
EWING: If the scenario played out in the way described in that interview, it would appear to be, based on the context from the Mueller report, against the law. Because the requirement is that at the time you take this tip in a political context from a foreign national or a foreign government, if you know you're doing so and it's against the law then you've committed a crime. Maybe people didn't know that before the release of the Mueller report, before the legal analysis that takes place in Volume 1 of that document. But now many Americans know that the Mueller report is a bestseller. It's on the top of The New York Times list. Members of Congress are reading it in live sessions on TV. And so it would be harder for someone in any political campaign to claim going forward that they didn't know about those requirements in the law barring accepting those kinds of things of value - tips, reports, studies, information leaks, et cetera, from foreigners.
KING: OK. So some of that has been settled. Let's listen to a little bit more of the president in this interview with George Stephanopoulos.
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TRUMP: This is somebody that said, we have information on your opponent. Oh, let me call the FBI. Give me a break. Life doesn't work that way.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: The FBI director says that's what should happen.
TRUMP: The FBI director is wrong.
KING: What does the FBI director say about what should happen if an American is contacted by a foreign government that says, we have damaging information on your opponent?
EWING: The FBI has defended its practices in the Russia investigation, and the FBI director Christopher Wray has gone to Congress a number of times and said, we had to investigate this because this was an unprecedented expansion of interference by a foreign government in our democratic process in 2016, and that when people find themselves in these situations, they need to report that to authorities. What the president is saying is there's no difference between that kind of tip and oppo research, as we talked about at the top, and so he doesn't feel he needs to report that.
There's a little bit of pushback about that this morning. People are saying he was mistaken, Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. And this is something that we're going to continue to hear about because it's kind of a big deal following the Mueller study.
KING: NPR national security editor Phil Ewing. Phil, thanks so much.
EWING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.