Trump strains to find coherent defense for Roger Stone commutation

In effect, Trump's line is, "Sure, what I did was wrong, but I can concoct stories about others being wrong, too."
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump listens during a meeting with Hispanic leaders at the White House July 9, 2020.Evan Vucci / AP file
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By Steve Benen

Late last year, on Christmas Eve, Donald Trump started talking publicly about intervening in Roger Stone's criminal case. The date is relevant insofar as it helps mark the point at which we can start the clock: the president and his team have had nearly seven months to come up with a coherent defense for commuting the sentence against Trump's felonious friend.

The time was not well spent.

On Friday night, the White House released a formal written statement on the executive-clemency decision, which was a profoundly embarrassing document. The 628-word statement was filled with obvious and lazy falsehoods; it was written in the voice of a right-wing Twitter thread; and it made no real effort to contest the fact that Stone was guilty of multiple felonies.

This was Team Trump's opportunity to make a carefully crafted case in defense of the president's actions, and by all appearances, the president and his aides barely seemed to try.

The next morning, confronted with brutal coverage of his flagrant corruption, Trump turned to Twitter to argue, "Roger Stone was targeted by an illegal Witch Hunt that never should have taken place. It is the other side that are criminals, including Biden and Obama, who spied on my campaign - AND GOT CAUGHT!" In other words, Trump's defense of his corrupt act was to falsely accuse his predecessors of a corrupt act.

Soon after, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) described the president's overt misconduct as "unprecedented, historic corruption." Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) wasn't prepared to go nearly that far, though he conceded Trump's commutation was "a mistake." The president tweeted again:

"Do RINO’S Pat Toomey [and] Mitt Romney have any problem with the fact that we caught Obama, Biden, [and] Company illegally spying on my campaign? Do they care if Comey, McCabe, Page [and] her lover, Peter S, the whole group, ran rampant, wild [and] unchecked - lying [and] leaking all the way? NO!"

The argument is obviously foolish for anyone who takes reality seriously -- there was no illegal spying on the Trump campaign, the president's hysterical nonsense notwithstanding -- but it's the subtext that stood out for me. After having months to think up some talking points, the White House's defense of presidential corruption is to falsely accuse others of corruption.

In effect, Trump's line is, "Sure, what I did was wrong, but I can concoct stories about others being wrong, too."

It suggests the president's corruption is so indefensible that even he and his team can't think of a decent line.

Nevertheless, Trump's woeful and unpersuasive pushback may be having the intended effect: as of this morning, the total number of congressional Republicans who've criticized the president's corruption in the Roger Stone case stood at two.

Stone was, incidentally, convicted of lying to Congress -- a Republican-led committee, at that -- so it was tempting to think GOP lawmakers may have offered at least mild rebukes of the president's misconduct.

Their collective silence suggests they're comfortable with, or at least willing to tolerate, Trump's corruption.