The president’s alleged ignorance has become Republicans’ official line of defense against monumental accusations that Trump fired his FBI director to help out his buddy at best, or help himself at worst.
"The president's new at this,” House Speaker Paul Ryan rebutted after a reporter asked him about the allegation that Trump attempted to obstruct a federal investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s ties to Russia. Similarly, Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) justified Trump’s behavior as simply the result of the fact that “he’s used to be being the CEO.” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie even described accusations of Trump demanding “loyalty” from FBI Director James Comey as “normal New York City conversation.”
As Trump surrogates now call for the president to fire Bob Mueller, the man leading an investigation into Russian interference in the election and ties to the Trump campaign, let’s not pretend that Trump is clueless. He’s taking deliberate actions to shield himself and his protégés. And the Republican Party is enabling him to do it.
The evidence is clear: Trump knows what he's doing
Perpetuating the idea that Trump isn’t competent enough to be held to the standard of commander in chief when it comes to something as serious as the obstruction of an FBI investigation isn’t only irresponsible — it’s hard to believe.
If we are to take Comey’s testimony under oath as truthful, it’s difficult to see how Trump’s behavior was negligent rather than carefully calculated. Arguing that Trump’s actions were those of a novice is ridiculous when you look at the evidence that points to the very opposite. As my colleague Ezra Klein put it, Trump’s behavior is not that of a president; it’s that of a mob boss.
- Trump left no fingerprints: Trump asked key advisers to leave the room in one of his meetings with Comey, even when Attorney General Jeff Sessions and top hand Jared Kushner lingered. In a separate meeting, Trump wanted Comey alone and allegedly demanded “loyalty” (something he has a history of valuing above any other quality). If the president really thought he wasn’t doing anything wrong, why wouldn’t he do it in front of his staff?
- Trump covered himself with cryptic language: Republicans have tried to claim that Trump didn’t explicitly say, “Kill the investigation into Michael Flynn or you are fired.” But in fact, his decision not to proves the case even more clearly. He said, “I hope you can let this go,” and referenced the investigation without “the cloud” as opposed to giving Comey a direct order. This isn’t the behavior of a person who doesn’t know the rules — it’s the actions of a man who’s deliberately trying to zigzag around them.
- Trump set up a creepy dinner: Trump brought Comey into a one-on-one dinner in the White House, where he highlighted his power over him, reminding the FBI director that many people wanted his job. As Comey put it during his testimony, “The dinner was, at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship.”
- Trump then fired Comey: There’s a narrative here. Trump pressured Comey repeatedly. Comey didn’t comply. Trump fired him. This is not the logical path of a compulsive person who didn’t know what he was doing. It’s a straightforward path.
Trump knew that Republicans would defend him no matter what, and that the media would buy it
If the “Trump doesn’t know what he’s doing” argument feels familiar, it’s because it’s not the first time his conservative surrogates and the media have used the line to shield him from responsibility. There’s no reason to think Trump wouldn’t expect the same again.
During the election, when candidate Trump made baffling references to Hillary Clinton and the Second Amendment, campaign surrogates downplayed his behavior as simply gauche. “He is not a politician. He is not a person like you who’s very articulate, very well-spoken,” Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) said to Wolf Blitzer on CNN. “I’m not going to judge him on that, because I don’t think that’s what he meant,” he continued.
A few days later, when Trump proclaimed that Clinton had founded ISIS with President Obama, campaign surrogate Rudy Giuliani minimized his comments based on Trump’s status as a layman who apparently didn’t know calling your opponent the leader of a terrorist organization was bad. "It may be that he may make more insensitive statements because he's not a polished politician," Giuliani told John Catsimatidis. It remains to be seen how refraining from calling on your supporters to murder your political opponent would require years of training as career politician, but I digress.
It’s not just the GOP — cable news is also culpable of lowering the bar for the president. While the bar was set justifiably high for Clinton, it was at times clownishly low for Trump. One screengrab MSNBC showed before the first debate said Clinton was expected to explain “what she would do and how she would do it,” while Trump merely had to “stop lying.” The media graded Trump on a curve and therefore failed to hold him to the same standards as every presidential candidate who came before him. It’s one thing to do it while Trump was campaigning, but the gravity of doing it while he’s sitting in the highest office is exponential.
Trump is dumb like a fox
Donald Trump is not a new waitress at the Olive Garden who just screwed up a breadstick order — he’s the president of the United States of America, and he is being accused of a high-level crime that’s a threat to the democratic institutional order. A president who impulsively fires people who value integrity over loyalty is not running a government; he’s running the Mafia. That should be something that terrifies everyone, especially the people whose party will be remembered for putting him into office in the first place.
Playing dumb and counting on his buddies to cover for him was how President Trump got elected. He’s seen how it works. And there’s clear evidence he knows it. Fueling the narrative that he’s simply an inexperienced politician only makes him less accountable to the people he swore an oath to serve. That standard for the commander in chief is high. It’s time Trump’s party holds him to it.