Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) participate in a debate sponsored by Fox News at the Fox Theatre on March 3, 2016 in Detroit, Mich.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Rubio does himself no favors with weak defense of Trump scandal

When Donald Trump’s Ukraine scandal first broke two weeks ago, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) responded with lazy partisanship, telling Fox News the real controversy was Joe Biden getting a Ukrainian prosecutor fired to protect his son.

Even those who’ve come to expect very little from Rubio were struck by the pitiful response. As the Florida Republican must know, the former vice president – representing the bipartisan position of the United States and much of the Western world – targeted an inept prosecutor who wasn’t pursuing a company Biden’s son was associated with. Rubio’s reflexive effort to defend Trump by smearing Biden didn’t even make sense.

This week, however, the GOP senator was handed a great opportunity to redeem himself. Rubio has earned a reputation as a fierce China critic, so when his party’s president publicly sought Beijing’s assistance in targeting a domestic opponent yesterday, it offered the Floridian the chance to do the right thing, put country over party, and rebuke Donald Trump’s obvious abuse.

Alas, as the Miami Herald reported, the senator chose a different path.

[W]hen President Donald Trump on Thursday publicly called on China to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a potential 2020 rival, Rubio said Trump’s words were a ruse.

“I don’t know if that’s a real request or him just needling the press knowing that you guys are going to get outraged by it,” Rubio told reporters at an economic opportunity event in the Florida Keys on Friday. “He’s pretty good at getting everybody fired up and he’s been doing that for a while and the media responded right on task.” […]

“I don’t think that’s a real request. I think he did it to gig you guys [reporters],” Rubio said. “I think he did it to provoke you to ask me and others and get outraged by it. He plays it like a violin and everybody falls right in, that’s not a real request.”

As Republican talking points go, this comes up from time to time as a way of shrugging off assorted Trump abuses. Last year, for example, when the White House went after the security clearances of former intelligence officials who’ve criticized the president, then-House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters, “I think he’s trolling people, honestly.”

In that example, Ryan may have had a point; Trump didn’t actually follow through. In the effort to compel foreign officials to help the president’s re-election campaign, however, Rubio, in a rather literal sense, doesn’t appear to know what he’s talking about.

In fact, if there’s one thing that even the most unobservant Republicans should understand at this point, it’s that Trump wasn’t just popping off on Twitter or during an impromptu Q&A. The president and his team hatched a deliberate scheme, involving a variety of officials and offices, in the hopes of trying to coerce campaign assistance out of foreign governments.

Trump wasn’t trolling or trying to get a rise out of reporters; the media didn’t even know about the president’s efforts until reports of a complaint from an intelligence community whistleblower came to the fore.

On the White House South Lawn yesterday, Trump didn’t speak with a wink and a nod. There was no smirk. No one on his team came forward later in the day to suggest the president was just joshing. What we saw was real: the American president, desperate and afraid, publicly appealed to foreign countries to do his re-election campaign a favor – again.

Trump could’ve walked it back, and suggested this was all just a joke that journalists failed to understand, but he instead published a follow-up missive claiming an “absolute right” to pressure foreign governments to target those he deems corrupt.

It’s the sort of thing Marco Rubio should care about. His indifference says quite a bit about how the Florida Republican approaches his weighty responsibilities, and none of it’s good.