Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst and anchor. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
President Trump’s invitation to foreign powers to interfere in American elections is the Founding Fathers’ worst nightmare.
And every conservative congressman who’s ever called themselves an “originalist” ought to quickly condemn it or be forever labeled a hyperpartisan hack and a hypocrite.
This isn’t a tough call. The Founding Fathers were obsessed with foreign nations interfering with our elections and influencing our domestic debates. And it wasn’t a naive or paranoid concern – it was rooted in their understanding of how democratic republics had been undermined throughout history.
George Washington could not have been clearer in his farewell address: “against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.”
This warning was present even before the Constitution was ratified.
In 1787, John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson, “you are apprehensive of foreign interference, intrigue, influence. So am I.” Adams went on to explain that with every election “the danger of foreign influence recurs.”
It was this concern that motivated James Madison to prepare for the constitutional convention by writing “Notes on Ancient and Modern Confederacies,” which detailed historic failures with particular attention to the growth of bitter domestic divisions that were exploited by hostile foreign powers, especially in ancient Greece and Rome. The goal, of course, was to learn from their mistakes so as not to repeat them.
It was a theme the founders continued to hit hard in the Federalist Papers. Alexander Hamilton wrote with particular intensity in Federalist 68: “Nothing was more to be desired than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption. These most deadly adversaries of republican government might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one querter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union?”
That was one reason the founders decided to make only native-born citizens eligible for the presidency. Their nightmare scenario was a foreign power gaining improper influence on a president – the “chief magistracy of the Union.”
Nor was this a distant concern. During the 1790s, Poland found its sovereignty undermined by Russia, despite boasting the first written constitution in Europe. As I wrote in my book “Washington’s Farewell,” “squeezed between Russia and Prussia, Poland found its sovereignty systematically undermined by Senate candidates who secretly served those neighboring states. With a weakened military, a series of partitions reduced Poland to a skeletal state.”
Vladimir Putin didn’t come up with this playbook all by himself.
One reason that George Washington felt so intensely about the dangers of foreign influence and interference is that he had to contend with a direct challenge to his administration from revolutionary France. An emissary named “Citizen Genet” was sent to the United States to try and destabilize the newly-founded US government through partisan politics, riots and insurrection because Washington refused to back the guillotine-loving radical government, armed with an understanding that anarchy was the surest path to tyranny.
The founding fathers could not have been clearer about the existential threat that foreign interference in our elections and domestic debates could create. And it’s worth noting that they also saw bribery and corruption from foreign governments as one of the mechanisms for that betrayal of the national interest. This is why they included the emolument clause in the Constitution – specifying that those who led the nation could not “without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State” – and Madison clearly stated that its violation was cause for impeachment.
So when President Trump sincerely states that he would take information on his political opponents from foreign powers – and not feel compelled to alert the FBI – he is not just hanging a “for sale” sign on our democracy; he is violating the clear warnings and democratic norms set out for us by the Founding Fathers.
This was considered such an obvious danger that it was not delineated in law at the time other than the emoluments clause, which could apply, as cases currently winding their way through the courts contend. Some safeguards have since been put in place through legislation like the Federal Elections Campaign Act, but they’ve clearly not been sufficient to prevent the President from thinking that he can accept information about his political opponents from foreign governments.
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And with President Trump’s serial disregard, it is time for a clear law – members of Congress should get busy drafting it. Because President Trump clearly did not learn anything from the Mueller investigation or its most damning conclusion, that “the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.”
Instead, he’s saying he’d do it all again… signaling that he will do anything to win re-election, even at the expense of our national sovereignty.