‘We Absolutely Could Not Do That’: When Seeking Foreign Help Was Out of the Question

WASHINGTON — One day in October 1992, four Republican congressmen showed up in the Oval Office with an audacious recommendation. President George Bush was losing his re-election race, and they told him the only way to win was to hammer his challenger Bill Clinton’s patriotism for protesting the Vietnam War while in London and visiting Moscow as a young man.

Mr. Bush was largely on board with that approach. But what came next crossed the line, as far as he and his team were concerned. “They wanted us to contact the Russians or the British to seek information on Bill Clinton’s trip to Moscow,” James A. Baker III, Mr. Bush’s White House chief of staff, wrote in a memo later that day. “I said we absolutely could not do that.”

President Trump insists he and his attorney general did nothing wrong by seeking damaging information about his domestic opponents from Ukraine, Australia, Italy and Britain or by publicly calling on China to investigate his most prominent Democratic challenger. But for every other White House in the modern era, Republican and Democratic, the idea of enlisting help from foreign powers for political advantage was seen as unwise and politically dangerous, if not unprincipled.

A survey of 10 former White House chiefs of staff under Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama found that none recalled any circumstance under which the White House had solicited or accepted political help from other countries, and all said they would have considered the very idea out of bounds.

“I served three presidents in the White House and don’t remember even hearing any speculation to consider asking for such action,” said Andrew H. Card Jr., who ran the younger Mr. Bush’s White House and was the longest-serving chief of staff in the last six decades.

William M. Daley, who served as commerce secretary under Mr. Clinton and chief of staff under Mr. Obama, said if someone had even proposed such an action, he probably would “recommend the person be escorted out of” the White House, then fired and reported to ethics officials.

Other chiefs were just as definitive. “Did not happen on Reagan’s watch. Would not have happened on Reagan’s watch,” said Kenneth M. Duberstein, his last chief of staff. “I would have shut him down,” said Leon E. Panetta, who served as Mr. Clinton’s chief of staff and Mr. Obama’s defense secretary.

The sense of incredulity among White House veterans in recent days crossed party and ideological lines. “This is unprecedented,” said Samuel K. Skinner, who preceded Mr. Baker as chief of staff under Mr. Bush. Other chiefs who said they never encountered such a situation included Thomas F. McLarty III and John D. Podesta (Clinton) and Rahm Emanuel, Denis R. McDonough and Jacob J. Lew (Obama).

History has shown that foreign affairs can be treacherous for presidents, even just the suspicion of mixing politics with the national interest. As a candidate in 1968, Richard M. Nixon sought to forestall a Vietnam peace deal by President Lyndon B. Johnson just before the election.

Associates of Mr. Reagan were accused of trying to delay the release of hostages by Iran when he was a candidate in 1980 for fear that it would aid President Jimmy Carter, but a bipartisan House investigation concluded that there was no merit to the charge. Mr. Clinton faced months of investigation over 1996 campaign contributions from Chinese interests tied to the Beijing government.

In none of those cases did an incumbent president personally apply pressure to foreign powers to damage political opponents. Mr. Trump pressed Ukraine’s president this summer to investigate involvement with Democrats in 2016 and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. while holding up $391 million in American aid. Mr. Trump has said he was simply investigating corruption, not trying to benefit himself.

“The right way to look at it is the vice president was selling our country out,” Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, said in an interview on Sunday. Mr. Trump was fulfilling his duty, he said. “I don’t see what the president did wrong.”

Mr. Giuliani has been leading Mr. Trump’s efforts to dig up evidence of corruption by the Democrats in Ukraine, meeting with various officials and negotiating a commitment by the newly installed government in Kiev to investigate conspiracy theories about Ukrainian involvement in the 2016 election and supposed conflicts of interest by Mr. Biden.

Told that past White House chiefs of staff said any legitimate allegations should be handled by the Justice Department, not the president, Mr. Giuliani said: “That’s if you can trust the Justice Department. My witnesses don’t trust the Justice Department, and they don’t trust the F.B.I.” He added that he would not have either until Attorney General William P. Barr took over.

Mr. Barr has contacted foreign officials for help in investigating the origin of the special counsel investigation by Robert S. Mueller III into Russian interference and ties with Mr. Trump’s campaign, part of an effort to prove that the whole matter was a “hoax,” as the president has insisted.

Mr. Trump defends himself by saying that other presidents have leaned on foreign governments for help. That is true, but when other presidents have pressured counterparts and even held up American assistance to coerce cooperation, it has generally been to achieve certain policy goals — not to advance the president’s personal or political agenda.

As an example, Mr. Trump often cites Mr. Obama, who was overheard telling President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia in 2012 that he would have more “more flexibility” to negotiate missile defense after the fall election. While that may be objectionable, it is not the same thing as asking a foreign government to intervene in an American election.

“They assume everybody’s as sleazy and dirty as they are, which is not the case,” Mr. Emanuel said.

Mr. Trump points to Mr. Biden, arguing that the former vice president was the one who abused his power by threatening to withhold $1 billion in American aid to Ukraine unless it fired its prosecutor general.

Mr. Biden’s son Hunter Biden served on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company, earning $50,000 a month. The company’s oligarch owner, Mykola Zlochevsky, had been a subject of cases overseen by the prosecutor, and so Mr. Trump contends that Mr. Biden sought the prosecutor’s ouster to benefit his son.

As a matter of appearances, at least, the former vice president’s family left him open to suspicion. Even some of his defenders say it was unseemly for Hunter Biden to seemingly trade on his family name. The elder Mr. Biden has said he never discussed his son’s business dealings in Ukraine with him, but some Democrats suggest he should have if only to prevent just such a situation from arising.

For all of that, however, no evidence has emerged that Mr. Biden moved to push out the prosecutor to benefit his son. No memo or text message has become public linking the two. None of the American officials who were involved at the time have come forward alleging any connection. No whistle-blower has filed a complaint.

In pressing for the prosecutor’s ouster, Mr. Biden was carrying out Mr. Obama’s policy as developed by his national security team and coordinated with European allies and the International Monetary Fund, all of which considered the Ukrainian prosecutor to be deliberately overlooking corruption.

Indeed, at the time Mr. Biden acted, there was no public evidence that the prosecutor’s office was actively pursuing investigations of Burisma, although Mr. Zlochevsky’s allies say the prosecutor continued to use the threat of prosecution to try to solicit bribes from the oligarch and his team.

The 1992 episode involving Mr. Bush and Mr. Baker provides an intriguing case study in the way previous administrations have viewed seeking political help overseas. At the time, Mr. Bush was trailing in the polls and eager for any weapon to turn things around.

Representatives Robert K. Dornan, Duncan Hunter and Duke Cunningham of California and Sam Johnson of Texas urged the president to ask Russia and Britain for help.

Mr. Dornan, reached last week, said Mr. Baker offered no objections during the meeting. “Baker sat there in the Oval Office like a bump on a log,” he recalled. “He said nothing.” If Mr. Baker advised Mr. Bush not to reach out to foreign governments, then he did so after the congressmen had left, Mr. Dornan said.

Mr. Dornan said that was a mistake and that Mr. Bush should have done as Mr. Trump has. “The bottom line from me was, ‘If you don’t do this, Mr. President, leader of the free world, you will lose,’” Mr. Dornan said. “And he didn’t do it and he lost. Baker cost Bush that second term.”

As it was, Mr. Baker and some of his aides got in trouble anyway because State Department employees searched Mr. Clinton’s passport file to determine whether he had ever tried to renounce his American citizenship. They found no such evidence, but an independent counsel was appointed to investigate whether the search violated any laws.

The attorney general who requested the investigation? Mr. Barr, in his first tour running the Justice Department. The independent counsel who was appointed? Joseph diGenova, a lawyer now helping Mr. Giuliani look for information in Ukraine. In the passport case, Mr. diGenova concluded that no laws had been broken and that he should never have been appointed in first place.

As for seeking help from Russia and Britain, Mr. Baker declined to comment last week, but his peers said he did exactly as they would have. “It would have been ludicrous at that stage to do anything,” Mr. Skinner said. “Baker’s decision was obviously the right one.”

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