Democrats pounced Thursday after President Trump suggested he would welcome foreign governments’ dirt on his political opponents, saying it was more proof that the president is ethically deficient and should be impeached, and they demanded an immediate reproach.
They tried to speed a bill through the Senate that would require presidential campaigns to report to the FBI any offers of foreign assistance, but Republicans blocked the legislation. They said the bill was overly broad and ill considered.
Democrats said they will try again next week because Mr. Trump’s comment was too outrageous to go without a response by the entire Congress.
“This one is a new low,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat.
The president said in an interview with ABC News in the Oval Office this week that a foreigner offering to share dirt on an opponent isn’t necessarily interference in an election.
“They have information. I think I’d take it,” he said. He added that he would evaluate the information before deciding whether to report the matter to the FBI.
With backlash growing, Mr. Trump took to Twitter to defend himself.
The president noted that he met in the past week alone with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles of the United Kingdom, the presidents of France and Poland, and the prime minister of Ireland.
“We talked about ‘Everything!’” he tweeted.
Ellen L. Weintraub, chair of the Federal Election Commission, issued a stern statement Thursday night saying the president could have violated the law simply by hypothesizing.
“It is illegal for any person to solicit, accept or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election,” said Ms. Weintraub, a Democratic appointee to the bipartisan commission.
She said that has been a precept of election policy since the country’s birth and that the founders “sounded the alarm” about foreign influence.
For a president still bruised by allegations of welcoming Russian interference in the 2016 election, the comments served as fresh fuel for House Democrats who are angling for impeachment.
Rep. Steve Cohen, Tennessee Democrat, told CNN that he now sees a “moral imperative” to pursue impeachment. If the House doesn’t attempt to oust Mr. Trump, he said, “I think we will see blood on our hands.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, rejected those calls but said Mr. Trump’s comment is an affront to the “sense of decency” and is another factor as Democrats evaluate the case for impeachment.
“What the president said last night shows clearly, once again, over and over again, that he does not know the difference between right and wrong,” Mrs. Pelosi said. “And that’s probably the nicest thing I could say about him, because if he does not know the difference, that could explain some of his ridiculous behavior.”
She said the House soon will vote on bills to improve election security, to reduce the chance that foreign money can be used to influence elections and to require a “duty to report” if a foreign government does offer dirt to a political campaign.
That duty to report was the basis of the bill that Democrats tried to speed through the Senate. Sen. Mark R. Warner, Virginia Democrat and vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, wrote legislation several weeks ago that would impose a five-year prison sentence on anyone who was plied with dirt from a foreign entity and didn’t report it.
Mr. Warner asked for consent to bring the bill to the floor Thursday and pass it immediately.
Sen. Marsha Blackburn, Tennessee Republican, derailed the push.
In her objection, she said Mr. Warner’s bill was “over broad” and could require not only a candidate but every person hired or volunteering for a campaign to report every conversation they have with a foreigner. She said that could even include conversations with immigrants who have not earned citizenship.
Mr. Warner disputed Ms. Blackburn’s assessment. He said his bill didn’t cover mere conversations but required reporting only offers of illegal help. He said it is already illegal to accept those offers but that the overture should be brought to authorities.
“If you see something, say something,” he said. “If there’s a form of intervention, tell the FBI. Let them make the judgment.”
He said he is open to working with Republicans to improve his bill because he is determined to try to pass legislation.
Republicans were divided on how to handle Mr. Trump’s comments.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, was pressed by reporters looking for criticism of Mr. Trump. Instead, Mr. McCarthy said he is convinced that the president would report untoward overtures.
Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, told reporters he never received such an overture but would rush to authorities should one be made.
“Let’s distinguish between a foreign official making an offhand comment at a dinner about the campaign versus a foreign government trying to influence an election,” he said. “In the latter case, that would be unthinkable. It would be totally inappropriate, and it would strike at the heart of our democracy.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican and key Trump ally, said the president’s comment seemed to invite foreign meddling, and he called it a “mistake.”
Still, he said Democrats aren’t blameless.
He pointed to the Clinton campaign’s secret payments in 2016 to a research firm that hired a former British spy, Michael Steele, to compile information on Mr. Trump using what appear to be Russian sources.
“The outrage some of my Democratic colleagues are raising about President Trump’s comments will hopefully be met with equal outrage that their own party hired a foreign national to do opposition research on President Trump’s campaign and that information, unverified, was apparently used by the FBI to obtain a warrant against an American citizen,” Mr. Graham said.
The dossier helped fuel surveillance efforts against the Trump campaign and precipitated a 22-month special counsel investigation that concluded there was no conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia to subvert the election.
⦁ Gabriella Muñoz and Bailey Vogt contributed to this report.
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