Republicans' Terrible Argument: Trump's Too 'New' to Obstruct Justice

Paul Ryan and others have started claiming the president is too inexperienced and bumbling to know he did anything wrong

"I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go," President Trump told his then-FBI director, according to James Comey's congressional testimony Thursday. Credit: George Frey/Getty

Former FBI Director James Comey sat down before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday and laid out a convincing case that the president of the United States tried to obstruct justice. Comey, who was abruptly fired by Trump a month ago, offered detailed descriptions of his interactions with the president, including an Oval Office meeting in which Trump asked that he call off the Justice Department investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go," Trump said, according to Comey.

Obviously it would be wildly inappropriate for a president to direct a senior law enforcement official to stop investigating a senior White House official, but that's exactly what Comey felt Trump had done. "I mean, this is the president of the United States, with me, alone, saying, 'I hope' this," Comey testified. "I took it as: This is what he wants me to do." The president, through his attorney, denied ever having said this to Comey, but it's Comey's word against Trump's, and Trump's word is beyond worthless.

Confronted with mounting and increasingly difficult-to-refute evidence that the president attempted to obstruct justice, Republicans in Congress have settled on a novel defense of Trump: He's too inexperienced and bumbling to know he did anything wrong.

House Speaker Paul Ryan argued Thursday that Trump just sort of stumbled into committing an impeachable offense. "The president is new at this," he told reporters. "He's new to government. And so he probably wasn't steeped into the long going protocols that established the relationships between DOJ, FBI and White Houses."

Sen. Marco Rubio offered a similar excuse, faulting the president's staff for not briefing him on how not to obstruct justice. "My hope is that there are people in the White House that advise the president about what's appropriate and what isn't when you're interacting with the FBI," Rubio said. "It's not clear why that didn't happen sooner, and it was a disservice to the president."

This is an astonishingly weak defense. Ryan and Rubio acknowledge that Trump did, in fact, ask Comey to call his dogs off of Flynn, and they allow that such behavior is inappropriate. But, their line of reasoning goes, it's no big deal because the president just wasn't savvy enough to understand that he was crossing a line.

Ignorance of the law is not a sufficient excuse for breaking the law. Even if Trump didn't understand what he was doing, Comey certainly did: The president was trying to use his authority to shield a former aide and close confidant from legal scrutiny. That's an abuse of power, and if your argument is that Trump is too thick to understand that, then what you're really saying is that he's not fit to wield the authority he's been granted.

But there's no reason to pretend Trump was unaware he was doing something wrong when he asked Comey to back off of Flynn. It should be glaringly obvious to even the laziest student of government and ethics – which the president certainly is – that it is not appropriate for a politician to pressure a law enforcement official on behalf of a crony. Trump shouldn't have needed to be briefed on that, and the fact his actions can't be explained away with "he's new." This is not good-government astrophysics; it's basic, basic stuff.

What's more, all the available evidence indicates that Trump understood he was acting illicitly. Comey testified that Trump asked all of his senior aides and the attorney general to leave the Oval Office so he could be alone with Comey, at which point Trump asked about dropping the investigation into Flynn. That's a damning bit of evidence, and Comey indicated as much in his remarks to the committee, calling it "a very significant fact." If you're going to argue that Trump acted out of ignorance, you also have to explain why he cleared the room before making his inappropriate request – and I'm not sure what that explanation could possibly be.

There's also the fact that Trump, when he was still a candidate, forcefully attacked Bill Clinton for meeting briefly with then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch while Hillary Clinton was under FBI investigation regarding her email server. At the time, Trump seemed to grasp how ethically fraught it was for Bill Clinton and Lynch to even leave open the possibility that they had discussed an ongoing investigation into Hillary. "You see a thing like this and, even in terms of judgment, how bad of judgment is it for him or for her to do this?" Trump asked. "It's so out of bounds."

The Republicans who defend Trump with this transparently bogus argument do so because they're more committed to protecting their agenda and governing majority than they are to ensuring that the government is run competently and ethically. The message Ryan, Rubio and the rest of the GOP are sending is that presidential corruption and ignorance are excusable so long as rich people can get a tax cut.

In his Senate committee hearing Thursday, the former FBI director said he believes the president to be a liar, among other things. Watch here.