The Republican Party has a serious James Comey problem. On the face of it, the former FBI director’s compelling testimony to the Senate—the opening statement of which was released Wednesday—of an attempted obstruction of justice by President Donald Trump, is one that merits further investigation. But the branches of government tasked with the constitutional duty of holding Trump responsible for such acts, the House of Representatives and the Senate, are controlled by Republican legislators who live in terror of the damage any Trump scandal would do to their party and political careers.
The Republican National Committee has prepared a set of talking points to answer Comey’s testimony on Thursday, but they’re notably incoherent. “President Trump feels completely and totally vindicated by former FBI Director James Comey’s opening testimony and is eager to move forward,” reads the first of the “Top Takeaways,” but a few lines later we’re told: “Director Comey has a long history of blatant contradictions and misstatements.” So is Comey a reliable enough character witness to vindicate Trump, or someone who can’t be trusted? No wonder one Republican told Politico’s Alex Isenstadt that the talking points come from people “living in an alternative reality.”
If the Comey testimony is presenting a problem for the RNC, Republican politicians and sympathetic pundits are coming up with their own separate apologia for Trump: They acknowledge that Trump’s behavior might look fishy, but argue his actions were those of a novice politician who obstructed justice out of sheer stupidity. Ignorant of the basic understanding of the rule of law and the independence of law enforcement, Trump blundered into shady behavior with no malicious intent.
“The Comey memo paints a picture of a political neophyte frustrated with and unaware of the way Washington works,” Matthew Continetti, editor of the Washington Free Beacon, wrote on Twitter. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat offered a variation of this argument: “Trump’s weird behavior re: Comey seems to reflect a man accustomed to being a boss, unprepared to be a president.” Oklahoma Senator James Lankford, in an interview with Fox News, also played up Trump’s lack of understanding of Washington. “America did not select a Washington guy or a politician,” Lankford said. “They hired a New York business guy.”
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, one of Trump’s strongest champions last year, made this case with characteristic bravado. “What people don’t understand is that they elected an outsider president,” Christie told MSNBC. “They elected someone who had never been inside of government and quite frankly didn’t spend a lot of time interacting with government except at the local level. And so the idea of the way that the tradition of these agencies, it’s not something that he’s ever been steeped in. So I think over the course of time, what you’re seeing is a president who is now very publicly learning about the way people react to what he considers to be normal New York City conversation.”
In one way, this is a very clever rhetorical ploy. Trump’s opponents in Washington, and much of the public, already believe he’s a birdbrain who doesn’t understand government. Often liberals will go further and argue that Trump is either fundamentally stupid or suffers from some sort of cognitive impairment. The argument that Trump potentially committed obstruction of justice out of sheer idiocy could win over people from well beyond pro-Trump and Never Trump Republicans.
Yet in the long run, the position that Trump is ignorant doesn’t really help the president. After all, both Comey’s statement and many accounts in the press conclusively demonstrate that those around Trump have tried, with great difficulty and little success, to explain how government works. Here is Comey’s account of some instruction he offered Trump over dinner on January 27:
At one point, I explained why it was so important that the FBI and the Department of Justice be independent of the White House. I said it was a paradox: Throughout history, some Presidents have decided that because “problems” come from Justice, they should try to hold the Department close. But blurring those boundaries ultimately makes the problems worse by undermining public trust in the institutions and their work.
Comey had to say this, of course, because Trump was overstepping those very boundaries. Comey’s testimony makes clear that if Trump is ignorant, he is willfully so. There are many other issues where Trump has stuck to his guns despite advice from his staff and other informed people. He hired Michael Flynn as national security advisor despite warnings from President Barack Obama and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates. Comey’s statement confirms that Trump continued to go to bat for Flynn even after scandal forced Flynn to resign. The day after he resigned, Trump allegedly told Comey, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
Trump’s stubbornness in defending Flynn indicates the real problem with the theory of Trump as the ignorant innocent. Someone who was only operating from a position of insufficient knowledge might make random mistakes, but Trump’s errors all point in one direction: a desire to clamp down on the Russia investigation with a particular focus on protecting Flynn. This obsession with Flynn makes it more plausible that Trump is operating from a position not of ignorance, but of culpability.
Let’s accept, for a moment, the contention that Trump’s mind doesn’t grasp how government works. Isn’t that a good argument for removing him from office? You can’t be impeached for ignorance, but Republican leaders, if they really thought Trump was lacking in the basic knowledge necessary for the job, could approach him to encourage a resignation. Or they could pass laws to limit his powers. Or they could support an opponent to primary him. It’s unlikely that Republicans will do any of these things because the idea of Trump as an airhead innocent is just a political tool for them, not cause for constitutional alarm.