IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The 'clueless, not criminal' Trump defense comes up far short

Donald Trump should be held to a lower standard on obstruction of justice, a GOP lawmaker said, because he lacks "the disciplined use of language."
US President Donald J. Trump after a group photo on the second day of the G7 Summit at the Hotel San Domenico in Taormina, Sicily, Italy, 27 May 2017.

Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) talked to NPR's Steve Inskeep yesterday, and the conservative lawmaker expressed support for the ongoing investigation into Donald Trump's Russia scandal, saying it'd be "healthy" to separate facts from fiction.

But note what happened when the discussion turned to the investigation into whether the president obstructed justice. From the NPR transcript:

SCHWEIKERT: I'm at the point where, you know, we also have to be real careful from the standpoint we have a president that's not from the political class. The learning of the disciplined use of language and what certain words mean in our context. If you're not from this world, you may not have developed that discipline. But understand, sometimes...INSKEEP: Although he's got an entire staff. He's got scores of lawyers. He's got people who could advise him on the law and on procedures if he wanted to listen to those things.

This brings us back to the line of argument known in some circles as the "clueless, not criminal" defense. Trump may have obstructed justice, the defense goes, but he didn't really mean to: the president simply doesn't know enough about politics or the law to know where the boundaries are. We should hold Trump to a lower standard, the argument implicitly suggests, because he doesn't really know what he's doing.

Or as Schweikert put it, the president is new to "the political class," which means he lacks "the disciplined use of language."

If this sounds familiar, it's because Schweikert isn't the only one making the argument. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), among others, argued earlier this week, "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.”

This is a very bad argument, which does not improve with repetition.

Just on the surface, it's a reversal of sorts for Republicans, who've gone from saying, "Trump didn't obstruct justice," to effectively saying, "Well, maybe he did, but it's only because he's ignorant."

But even putting aside questions of consistency, the "clueless, not criminal" tack is a disaster. As Inskeep reminded Schweikert, if the president wasn't sure about the legal limits of intervening in an ongoing investigation, he has an army of experts whom he can call on, 24-7, to bring him up to speed.

And for a law-and-order party, ignorance of the law shouldn't be a legitimate excuse, anyway.

What's more, the obstruction question isn't limited to "the disciplined use of language": Trump also fired the director of the FBI because of the president's dissatisfaction into an investigation into his political operation.

Making matters worse, as we discussed the other day, when Trump pressured then-FBI Director James Comey 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?

Similarly, Trump's complaints about former Attorney General Loretta Lynch yesterday suggest he has some basic understanding of his own wrongdoing.

But even putting all of that aside, the "clueless, not criminal" defense isn't even factually correct. Slate had a good piece the other day pointing to Trump himself rejecting the idea that he's somehow new to politics.

  • "I've been dealing with politicians all my life. All my life. And I've always gotten them to do what I need them to do." — November 2015
  • "I've been in politics all my life." — January 2016
  • "Nobody knows politicians better than Donald Trump." — February 2016
  • "Nobody knows the system better than I do." — April 2016
  • "I understand the system better than anybody else." — July 2016
  • "Nobody knows the system better than I do." — Again in August 2016 (last four via Washington Post)

This doesn't sound like an official who deserves a pass based on his ignorance and inexperience.