Asked about Trump's newest conspiracy theory, GOP flunks test

Those waiting for decency from Donald Trump should've given up a long time ago. What yesterday presented, however, was a test of his allies' decency.
Image: Martin Gugino
Martin Gugino is shoved by riot police during a protest against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Buffalo, N.Y., on June 4, 2020.WBFO / via Reuters
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By Steve Benen

During a recent social-justice protest, two Buffalo police officers were captured on video knocking down Martin Gugino. The 75-year-old man, part of the Catholic Worker Movement, was seen lying on the ground, blood pouring out of his ear after his head hit the concrete, before he was taken to the hospital. Most reasonable people saw the elderly activist as the victim of a crime.

Donald Trump, however, described him as a possible villain. In one of the more unhinged presidential tweets in recent memory, Trump, seizing on a crackpot conspiracy theory that bubbled up from fringe right-wing media, made the case that the hospitalized senior may secretly be "an antifa provocateur." The president added that the entire bloody incident may have been "a set up."

Obviously, those waiting for decency from Trump should've given up a long time ago. What yesterday presented, however, was a test of his allies' decency. By and large, they failed.

Republican senators don't want to talk about President Donald Trump's tweet. Some say they haven't read it. Others say they don't want to know about it. Yet others say they have a policy of not discussing what the president says on Twitter. That's perennially true -- but perhaps never more so than on Tuesday....

It's worth emphasizing that Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah) made their dissatisfaction known, though both were restrained in their criticisms.

But they at least cleared a low threshold. The vast majority of Republican senators, once again, pretended they had no idea what the president had published. Some reporters on Capitol Hill anticipated the dodge and took steps to share Trump's written words with the lawmakers, but that only led to additional clumsy evasiveness.

Offered a printout of the tweet, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) told CNN's Manu Raju, "I would rather not hear it."

The cowardice is difficult to defend. Common sense suggests these lawmakers are aware enough of current events to know when a story is generating considerable political attention, just as they know the president is wrong to peddle garbage to the public as if it were real. Too many GOP officials simply lack the courage to say so out loud.

But part of the problem has to do with the medium: some Republicans argued yesterday that they can't bring themselves to care about "tweets" -- as if Trump's online missives don't really count. They're trivial thoughts, the argument goes, not official presidential statements worthy of consideration.

The trouble is, the Trump administration disagrees. In 2017, the Justice Department argued before a federal judge that Trump's tweets are "official statements of the President of the United States."

For senators to say they don't comment on presidential tweets is effectively no different from senators saying they don't comment on official presidential statements -- and if that seems foolish, it's because it is.

Postscript: The deranged Buffalo conspiracy theory reached Trump's attention by way of a writer who's reportedly moonlighted as a reporter for a Russian propaganda outlet. It led to a Washington Post analysis about the "frequent overlap" between the American president's bizarre ideas and propaganda from Moscow.