Biden campaign restricts contacts with foreign officialsJune 23, 2020
Joe Biden’s presidential campaign is severely restricting its staffers’ and volunteers’ contacts with foreign officials to avoid even the perception of outside interference with this year’s election — a move it attributes to a “poisonous environment” created by President Donald Trump.
The decision, though made last year, was shared with POLITICO this week as a new book from former national security adviser John Bolton alleges that Trump asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to help ensure his reelection.
It could be a tough policy to enforce given that the Biden campaign’s foreign policy apparatus has expanded to more than 1,000 people and that foreign governments are increasingly eager to establish connections with the campaign.
Trump was impeached late last year over his attempts to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate Biden and his son, Hunter, though he was later acquitted in the Senate. U.S. intelligence officials have warned that Russia is trying to interfere in the 2020 race as it did in 2016, when they believe Moscow tried to boost Trump.
“Because of this poisonous environment created by the president, and so that there is no confusion as to whether or not we are inviting any assistance from foreign governments … our campaign has refrained from engaging in substantive conversations with foreign government officials, and would only do so under conditions that ensure transparency,” Antony Blinken, a senior adviser to Biden, said in a statement to POLITICO.
Blinken accused Trump of having “debased” the office of the presidency by “even begging foreign governments to shore up his re-election campaign.” Trump has denied that allegation, though he has publicly called on the Chinese and Ukrainian governments to investigate the Bidens.
Biden has for years “forcefully argued against any campaign” accepting foreign assistance, Blinken said.
The Biden campaign said it did not foresee any circumstance in which it would engage in any substantive interaction with a foreign official. But if such a situation did arise, it would involve a pre-set agenda cleared with campaign lawyers and foreign affairs staffers, that a notetaker would summarize the conversation, and that a readout would be given to the press.
The Biden campaign’s choice is in many ways more symbolic than anything.
Biden has longstanding relationships with an array of foreign officials, including heads of state, dating back to his years in Congress as well as his time as Barack Obama’s vice president. Some of his top foreign policy advisers – among them Blinken, a former deputy secretary of State; Jake Sullivan, a former top State Department official; and Julie Smith, who advised Biden at the White House – are veteran Washington figures with massive Rolodexes who have published essays and other position papers that speak to what a Biden presidency might look like.
And because Biden and many of his advisers served in the Obama administration, their negotiating styles as well as their views on plenty of foreign policy issues also are well-known.
Still, the decision to adhere to such a rule is irking some foreign diplomats. Many governments, often through their ambassadors and other embassy officials, try to ingratiate themselves with American presidential campaigns, especially once both parties’ presumptive nominees are clear.
“It’s frustrating,” a Middle Eastern diplomat said, requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. “I know people are talking about election interference, but we’re talking about building a relationship with, say, the foreign policy adviser who might become the next national security adviser. You want to do that in this day and not when they’re in the position. When they’re officially in office, they’re harder to get to.”
It’s not unusual for presidential contenders to talk to foreign diplomats or even heads of state during their campaigns, though it can come with risks.
In 2016, both Trump and Hillary Clinton met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, drawing fierce criticism for engaging with the brutally repressive dictator. Trump also drew headlines for a quick trip to Mexico, a country he’d repeatedly insulted, to meet with its then-president, Enrique Peña Nieto.
The Biden campaign’s decision to restrict contacts with foreign officials was quietly made within a couple of months after the former vice president formally launched his White House run in April 2019.
It’s a notable move given how much attention Trump has drawn for his questionable dealings with foreign officials as he seeks a second term.
Bolton’s revelations in particular have rattled Washington. The former national security adviser, a man with lengthy conservative credentials, asserts that Trump pushed China’s Xi to boost purchases of U.S. agricultural products, a move that could improve Trump’s standing in the heartland.
“He stressed the importance of farmers, and increased Chinese purchases of soybeans and wheat in the electoral outcome,” wrote Bolton, who was pushed out of the White House last year as his relationship with the president soured.
Trump has shot back that Bolton’s book “is a compilation of lies and made up stories, all intended to make me look bad” and called for him to be prosecuted for allegedly publishing classified information. Bolton denies any wrongdoing.
“Many of the ridiculous statements he attributes to me were never made, pure fiction,” the president tweeted June 18. “Just trying to get even for firing him like the sick puppy he is!” (Bolton maintains that he resigned.)
A spokesman for the Trump campaign did not reply to questions related to this story, including whether it has a similar policy.
In 2016 and after the election, several Trump campaign aides’ dealings with foreign officials came under scrutiny. A drunken encounter between one volunteer adviser, George Papadopoulos, and the Australian ambassador to London launched a secret FBI investigation into whether the Trump campaign had colluded with Russia to swing the election. The FBI also surveilled Carter Page, a volunteer who had worked in Moscow and had ongoing ties to Russian officials. Jeff Sessions, then a U.S. senator, met with several foreign officials in his capacity as the campaign’s top foreign policy adviser — including, controversially, the Russian ambassador.
In 2020, even before effectively wrapping up the primary, Biden had already won the allegiance of much of the Democratic foreign policy establishment, with many former Obama appointees flocking to his campaign.
According to two people on calls with the Biden campaign during which the issue was discussed in the spring, at least 800 foreign policy and national security hands are on the Biden team. Another 400 had applied to join at that point.
Such positions are unpaid and less influential than official campaign staffers such as Blinken, but they can be key stepping stones for people who wish to join the next administration, and a place to hash out new ideas and firm up policy positions. These volunteer advisers also have been told not to talk to foreign officials about the campaign.
“A number of our over 1,000 informal volunteers, in the course of their own professional work, deal with foreign government officials – but they have been given strict guidance to never interact with any such officials on behalf of the campaign and not to share anything about their advice to the campaign or other substantive campaign matters,” a Biden aide said.
The Biden campaign has set up some 20 committees to tackle foreign policy and national security issues, such as relations with China, the two people said.
While the numbers are large, they’re not entirely unprecedented.
During the 2016 campaign, Clinton locked down the expertise of hundreds of foreign policy analysts, leaving few available to offer their time to Bernie Sanders, her main rival for the Democratic nomination.