All politicians, even the most polished, say things they wish they hadn’t. In the jargon of Washington, the process of resolving these self-inflicted crises is usually called the walk back. Compelled to provide more context, politicians will—usually through their press aides—admit they they “misspoke” or “regret their remarks.”
Donald Trump forgoes the walk back in favor of irresponsibly disclaiming the seriousness and implications of his statements. He responds to criticism of his remarks with a kind of all-purpose social-media insouciance—“j/k, lol!” After the Washington Post in October published the infamous Access Hollywood tape, in which Trump boasts on a live mic about sexually assaulting women with impunity, he said in a statement, “This was locker-room banter, a private conversation that took place many years ago.” After Trump, in a televised press conference in July, solicited Russian hackers to commit crimes against Hillary Clinton on television, he responded to criticism by telling Fox News, “Of course I’m being sarcastic.”
Just about any Trump utterance, apparently, can be written off as yet more locker room talk—including his private request to FBI Director Jim Comey to abandon the federal investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn. “I hope you can let this go,” the president said, according to a Comey memo revealed by The New York Times on Tuesday. After 12 hours of conspicuous silence, White House aides and several Republicans on Capitol Hill, chalked up the whole thing to a misunderstanding. Trump was probably just pallin’ around!
In so many ways, including this one, Trump’s complete absence of integrity is rubbing off on the party at large. Of Wednesday’s many news bombshells, the most contested story was about a year-old conversation among House Republican leaders in which Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin was funneling money to then-candidate Donald Trump. Speaker Paul Ryan then swore the group to secrecy.
McCarthy: There’s…there’s two people, I think, Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump…[laughter]…swear to God.
Ryan: This is an off the record…[laughter]…NO LEAKS…[laughter]…alright?!
Aides to Ryan and McCarthy initially told the Post the quotes were fabricated, but when the Post alerted them that their conversation was caught on tape, their story changed just as you’d expect Trump’s would: j/k, lol! “This entire year-old exchange was clearly an attempt at humor,” said Ryan’s spokesman. “This was a failed attempt at humor,” said McCarthy’s.
After reading the transcript, some reporters—from outside the Post—instinctively sided with Ryan and McCarthy.
These tweets aren’t obviously access-seeking apologetics or competitive jealousy, either: The portion of the transcript in question can be read generously to suggest a half-serious kind of hyperbole. But as with every other “locker room talk” controversy, an obsessive focus on controversial phrases obscures more than it reveals. In each of the above cases, the real story emerges from surrounding events and context.
The most damning thing about the Access Hollywood tape wasn’t that Trump said his celebrity empowers him to “grab” women “by the pussy,” but the ample testimony from women who say Trump pulled that very move on them. The best indicia of Trump’s collaboration with Russian intelligence wasn’t his saying, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 [Clinton] emails that are missing.” It was his reflexive need to sow doubt about the identity of the hackers (“If it is Russia, which it’s probably not. Nobody knows who it is.”) in the face of broad consensus that the hackers were, indeed, Russian—all while reveling in the contents of the theft, and rewarding Russia with policy concessions. And the clearest sign of Trump’s frame of mind in his exchange with Comey wasn’t the special pleading on Flynn’s behalf, but what he did before asking Comey to “let this go”:
Mr. Comey had been in the Oval Office that day with other senior national security officials for a terrorism threat briefing. When the meeting ended, Mr. Trump told those present — including Mr. Pence and Attorney General Jeff Sessions — to leave the room except for Mr. Comey.
Comey did not let Flynn go. And less than three months later, as Comey’s investigation heated up, Trump fired him.
We may never know if McCarthy and Ryan thought Trump was literally taking money from Putin. But we don’t even need to reach that part of the transcript to see just how resolved they were to allow Trump to benefit from Russian interference in the election, whether money changed hands or not.
Payroll questions aside, the conversation between the leaders was, at bottom, a long lament about Russian subversion of democracies, followed by a recognition that Trump was already benefitting from it.
Ryan: Russia is trying to turn Ukraine against itself.
[Cathy McMorris-] Rodgers: Yes. And that’s…it’s sophisticated and it’s, uh…
Ryan: And guess…guess who’s the only one taking a strong stand up against it? We are.
Rodgers: We’re not…we’re not…but, we’re not…
McCarthy: [unintelligible]…I’ll GUARANTEE you that’s what it is.[Unintelligible]
McCarthy: The Russians hacked the DNC and got the opp research that they had on Trump.
Ryan: The Russian’s hacked the DNC…
[Patrick] McHenry: …to get oppo…
Ryan: …on Trump and like delivered it to…to who?
The basic nature of the pro-Trump subversion effort was known to GOP leaders before the parties’ conventions last year: The above conversation took place on June 15. Several weeks after the GOP officially nominated Trump in mid-July, in a secure setting with Obama administration officials and other members who receive classified briefings, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed to politicize any effort on the part of the government to reveal that Russian intelligence was intervening in the election to help Trump. “According to several officials,” the Post reported, “McConnell raised doubts about the underlying intelligence and made clear to the administration that he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics.”
Despite Ryan’s clear awareness of the truth, we can infer that he sided with McConnell, tacitly or otherwise, because the Obama administration backed down in the face of McConnell’s threat. An official government assessment that Russia was helping Trump in the election didn’t reach the public until after the election, as Trump was transitioning to the presidency.
Unless this story has a second act, McCarthy and Ryan will stick to the explanation that their Putin-paying-Trump speculation was meant to be a joke. But even if that part of the conversation had never happened, the rest of it, and the later briefing with Obama officials, tell a perfectly rounded story of congressional Republicans’ complicity in Russian sabotage of the Clinton campaign. There is no way to walk this one back—and it wasn’t locker room talk.