The back of Donald Trump is pictured in Rochester, N.H., Sept. 17, 2015.
Photo by Mark Peterson/Redux for MSNBC

The perils of defending Donald Trump

On Tuesday night, shortly after Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), one of Congress’ more moderate Republicans, quickly endorsed the president’s decision. What’s more, the Maine senator anticipated concerns from White House critics, and dismissed them.

“Any suggestion that today’s announcement is somehow an effort to stop the FBI’s investigation of Russia’s attempt to influence the election last fall is misplaced,” Collins said, not realizing that Trump and White House aides would soon after connect Comey’s firing with the Russia scandal.

The next morning, the Washington Post published a piece from Hugh Hewitt, a prominent conservative pundit, who embraced the message the White House encouraged Trump’s defenders to repeat.
Anyone who thinks this is connected to a coverup of “Russian collusion” has to believe that both [Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein] and [Attorney General Jeff Sessions] would participate in such a corrupt scheme. I don’t. It is, in fact, absurd to think that. Reread the Rosenstein memo – a few times. There’s the story. Comey was wrong in July, wrong in subsequent statements, wrong as recently as last week and refused to admit error.

The story is a straight-line one, and it’s about Rosenstein.
What Hewitt had no way of knowing when he wrote this is that the White House would soon after abandon the “it’s about Rosenstein” narrative. In fact, Donald Trump himself said yesterday that Rosenstein’s memo on Comey was irrelevant – the president had already decided to fire the FBI director regardless of what Justice Department officials recommended – and he was motivated to fire Comey because of the Russia scandal.

Consider all of the assorted partisans and pundits this week who stuck up for Trump, defended his abuse, and said with a straight face that Comey’s firing was completely unrelated to the FBI’s investigation into the Russia scandal. Then consider how they must have felt yesterday when the president they tried to support cut them off at the knees.

It must be exhausting being a Trump supporter, knowing that even if you’re loyal, even if you’re sycophantic, even if you say and do exactly what the West Wing implores you to say and do, the president may decide to impulsively switch directions and undermine your credibility without so much as a warning.

You may stick out your neck for this administration, only to have Trump himself lower the proverbial sword.

White House aides themselves aren’t immune from the problem. Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said all kinds of ridiculously untrue things yesterday, including literally unbelievable claims about “countless” conversations she’s had with FBI officials, and this morning on Twitter, the president undermined her, too.

“As a very active president with lots of things happening, it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!” Trump said, effectively declaring that Team Trump is simply too busy to tell the truth.

If we accept the president’s words at face value, Americans shouldn’t expect “accuracy” from White House officials who stand at the briefing-room podium, speaking on Trump’s behalf.

The administration’s defenders – in the White House, in Congress, in the media – are therefore left with a decision. They can either continue to carry water for a president who’s likely to embarrass them without a second thought, or they can protect their own credibility and stop. It’s as simple as that.

Postscript: As part of his Twitter tantrum this morning, Trump added, “Maybe the best thing to do would be to cancel all future ‘press briefings’ and hand out written responses for the sake of accuracy???” As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent noted, that wouldn’t work, since the White House press office lies in written responses, too.