The Plum Line | Opinion
June 9, 2017 at 10:43 AM
THE MORNING PLUM:
Now that James B. Comey's testimony to Congress has painted a picture of President Trump's contempt for the rule of law that's far more forceful and persuasive in its dramatic details than Republicans ever bargained for, the new and emerging GOP defense is that Trump is a political and procedural naif. He merely needs to learn the rules. This line of obfuscation requires pretending that many of the events of the past six months never happened.
But this spin from Republicans has a significance that runs deeper than merely revealing the absurd lengths to which they'll go to protect Trump from political and legal harm. More urgently, their new line unwittingly reveals the degree to which Trump's abuses of power and assault on our democracy have depended all along upon their tacit and willful complicity — and, perhaps worse, it leaves little doubt that this enabling will continue, with unforeseen consequences.
The Post's Mike DeBonis has a good piece laying out this strategy. It takes various forms. Paul Ryan casts Trump's interactions with Comey as a mere matter of inexperience. "The president's new at this," Ryan says, adding that Trump "probably wasn't steeped in the long-running protocols" that under our system establish law enforcement's independence from the White House. Others ground the argument in Trump's business past or affection for the theatrics of disruption. "He's used to being the CEO," insists one House Republican. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) adds that Trump is merely being "crude, rude and a bull in a china shop."
But Republicans making this argument are dishonestly feigning naivete about much of what we've seen from Trump since the beginning of his presidency. The problem with the idea that Trump merely needs to learn the rules is that we have a large pile of evidence showing that Trump is deeply convinced that the rules should not apply to him.
For starters, there is a massive clue in Comey's written testimony that shows this to be the case. In Comey's recounting of Trump's requests of him, Comey also relates his own effort to explain to Trump why his requests were improper. After Trump demanded "loyalty" during their private Jan. 27 dinner, Comey recounts that he then explained "why it was so important that the FBI and the Department of Justice be independent of the White House." Comey added that he explained that "blurring those boundaries" undermines "public trust." After that, Trump nonetheless repeated: "I need loyalty." And then, on Feb. 14, Trump asked Comey to let his former national security adviser Michael Flynn go, a request Comey interpreted as a "direction" or "order."
Comey's previous effort to explain the rules to Trump went entirely ignored — twice. And when Comey testified yesterday, he said explicitly that he took notes because he was "concerned Trump might lie" about their interactions, because of the "nature of the person." Every Republican who continues to pretend Trump's interactions with Comey are merely a matter of Trump's inexperience, theatrical inclinations or business mind-set knows these basic facts. They all know perfectly well that Comey's suspicions that Trump would deliberately mislead the American people about them had ample basis, and, indeed, are now being borne out.
Beyond this, as Brian Beutler points out, this faux naivete about Trump on the part of Republicans requires forgetting that he is surrounded by experienced officials who are ostensibly there to keep the White House within basic boundaries. Instead, they are willfully carrying out Trump's relentless trampling of them.
This touchingly innocent GOP naivete also requires forgetting all the ways that Trump has flouted the rules — and shown total contempt for our institutions and democratic processes, norms and constraints — on multiple other fronts for months. All these Republicans have witnessed the White House's repeated attacks on the news media, which have strayed deep into an effort to undermine the fundamental institutional role of the press as a check on lawmakers' excesses or corruption. They know Trump's attacks on the courts have shaded into an effort to undermine their very legitimacy at a time when they are constraining Trump's power to impose an immigration ban, which a senior Trump adviser explicitly described as a test run to demonstrate that his power "will not be questioned."
All these Republicans know that Trump's business arrangement and refusal to release his tax returns are shredding basic norms of transparency (in fact, many Republicans criticized the latter during the GOP presidential primaries, remember?) that presidential candidates in both parties held themselves to for decades. They have witnessed Trump's serial use of important diplomatic business to promote Mar-a-Lago, at an increased cost to taxpayers. All these things are about more than just concealing conflicts or enriching himself and his family. They are functions of Trump's autocratic and authoritarian tendencies — he does these things to demonstrate that he can.
Republicans, of course, have done little to nothing to check all of these abuses. But this amounts to more than mere abdication of oversight. It represents a refusal to acknowledge what all of these things add up to — a picture of a lawless president who does not believe that rules, norms or constraints should apply to him. In this context, the spin that Trump will behave once he "learns the rules" represents a much broader and deeper abdication of responsibility to admit to, and grapple with, the authoritarian reality in our midst. Even worse, it confirms that their complicity with these abuses will continue. With Trump likely to descend further, to unforeseen depths, we have only begun to grasp the stakes of this enabling exercise, and have no idea where the bottom lies, in the minds of Republicans, or indeed, if there is any bottom at all.
* DUMB GOP TALKING POINT ON TRUMP IS DEBUNKED: Republicans keep saying Comey testified that Trump only said he "hoped" Comey would drop the probe into Michael Flynn, as if this shows it was not a directive. Charlie Savage punctures this talking point by citing several cases in which a prosecution was brought for obstruction based on such a vague formulation.
As one former prosecutor tells Savage: "We have examples all the time in criminal law of people saying things only slightly subtly, where everyone understands what is meant — 'Nice pair of legs you got there; shame if something happened to them.' " Indeed, Comey testified that he took Trump's "hope" as "direction."
* RNC GOES ON THE ATTACK … AGAINST COMEY: The Washington Examiner reports that the Republican National Committee is launching attacks on Comey, a shift in the committee's mission — it's now acting as Trump's defender against accusations of legal wrongdoing:
It's unusual in the recent history of the Republican Party's national campaign organization to defend a president or other top leaders in personal feuds and against threats emanating from beyond the traditional political and legislative arenas. Yet the RNC … has slowly shifted in the direction of functioning as an arm of Trump's personal attack machine.
Something tells us the RNC will be increasingly busy in this new and less-than-savory role in the coming weeks and months.
* A BIG BLOW TO THE SENATE REPEAL BILL? The Hill reports that the Senate parliamentarian now says a key provision in the Senate repeal-and-replace bill may not be passable under "reconciliation" by simple majority:
The parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, has flagged language that would bar people from using new refundable tax credits for private insurance plans that cover abortion … If Republicans are forced to strip the so-called Hyde language from the legislation, which essentially bars federal funds from being used to pay for abortions unless to save the life of a mother or in cases of rape and incest, it may doom the bill … Unless a workaround can be found, conservative senators and groups that advocate against abortion rights are likely to oppose the legislation.
The thing is that in the dark underground maze otherwise known as Senate rules, magical and surprising things tend to happen.
* IS OSSOFF IN THE LEAD? A new Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll finds that Democrat Jon Ossoff has taken a seven-point lead among likely voters, 51 percent to 44 percent, over Republican Karen Handel in the special House election in the Atlanta suburbs. Note this:
He's capturing about 13 percent of Republican voters and 50 percent of independents – a crucial voting bloc that typically leans right in Georgia. It shows almost no cross-over on the flip side; only 3 percent of Democrats say they're backing Handel.
* WHAT COMEY DIDN'T SAY IS ALSO IMPORTANT: Eugene Robinson makes a good point: What Comey didn't say yesterday is at least as important as what he did say:
Topics he scrupulously avoided may give a hint of where the investigation is headed. He declined, for example, to answer a question in open session about Vnesheconombank (VEB), a Russian government-owned development bank linked to President Vladimir Putin. Trump's adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, met last year with VEB executives. Comey was also reticent about his interactions with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was his boss — and who had to recuse himself from Russia-related investigations.
Kushner is now a focus of the FBI investigation. Meanwhile, Comey subsequently told senators in a closed-door briefing that Sessions may have had an additional undisclosed meeting with the Russian ambassador that Comey didn't want to discuss in open session.
* THE WORST IS YET TO COME: Paul Krugman notes that the Comey testimony starkly revealed Trump's contempt for the rule of law and runs through all of the damage Trump's unfitness for office is doing on many other fronts:
Everything suggests that Trump is neither up to the job of being president nor willing to step aside and let others do the work right … The American presidency is, in many ways, sort of an elected monarchy, in which a temperamentally and intellectually unqualified leader can do immense damage. That's what's happening now. And we're barely one-tenth of the way through Trump's first term. The worst, almost surely, is yet to come.
* AND THE TRUMP TWEET OF THE DAY, TOTALLY-IN-THE-CLEAR EDITION: Good morning, Mr. President. Thinking about the Russia probe again at this early hour, are we?
Yeah, except you weren't vindicated at all. Nonetheless, we're going to see lots of headlines that trumpet Trump's claim of vindication, without informing readers this is total nonsense.