As Donald Trump’s Russia scandal has intensified, and evidence of alleged obstruction of justice has mounted, the president’s allies have argued repeatedly that the Republican did not do what he’s accused of doing. The allegations, the right has insisted, are wrong.
This week, the party line changed. Maybe he did do some of those things, Trump’s defenders have begun arguing, but it’s just because he’s so ignorant.
Here, for example, is what House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters yesterday:
It’s an increasingly common argument. Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said yesterday, “It has to still be legal and right and all that, but I think a lot of it is – he’s used to being the CEO.”
“[O]f course there needs to be a degree of independence between DOJ, FBI, and a White House and a line of communications established. The president is new at this, he is new to government, and so he probably wasn’t steeped in the long running protocols that establish the relationships between DOJ, FBI, and White Houses. He is just new to this.”
Here’s a tip for political professionals: if your argument begins, “It has to still be legal and right and all that, but…” stop and think of something else.
Regardless, this entire tack is bizarre. It’s as if some on the right want Americans to believe we elected an ignorant television personality to lead the executive branch of a global superpower, and if he started ignoring the rule of law shortly after taking office, it’s only because he’s a fool, not a criminal.
And that’s supposed to be the defense of the president.
By any fair measure, it’s not a good one. Trump spent a year and a half on the campaign trail, telling the electorate and the world he was ready to be president, giving himself ample time to learn about the position he was seeking. There was also the post-election transition period, where Trump had an opportunity to learn basic details such as, “Don’t pressure the FBI director about an ongoing investigation into one of the president’s pals.”
Once in office, if Trump had questions about the legal boundaries of his behavior, he also had a sizable group of aides – including the White House counsel’s office – who are available 24/7 to provide the president with any information he might want.
Ignorance of the law, in other words, may work as a credible excuse for Trump’s sycophantic boosters, but there’s no reason anyone else should accept it.
But even if someone were inclined to take the defense seriously, even if generous souls want to see Trump as an innocent, lost in the woods, completely unaware of the fact that obstructing justice is a presidential no-no, the story still falls apart given what we know about what transpired.
Remember, former FBI Director James Comey has explained that when Trump pressured him about the investigation into Michael Flynn, he did so after clearing the room after an Oval Office meeting with a series of other officials. If the president was simply naïve, and had no idea his alleged actions were improper, why did he kick potential witnesses out of the room?