Defending Donald Trump has been a challenge and a headache for Republicans ever since he became their party’s nominee for president in 2016. After every appalling tweet, every racist statement and every ludicrous policy idea, Republicans are called upon to explain why this is really no big deal and everything’s fine.
But with Trump’s scandals deepening and the law closing in, justifying the president’s words and actions is getting harder and harder.
Fortunately for them, Republicans have always been good at this sort of thing, unencumbered as they are by logic or principle. So how are they reacting to the latest developments, including the allegation by federal prosecutors that Trump instructed his attorney Michael Cohen to break the law in concealing the hush money payoff to Stormy Daniels, the fact that 16 different Trump associates had contact with Russians during the campaign and the transition, and the growing list of indictments, convictions and guilty pleas?
Let’s look at some of their defenses:
Why should we bother investigating this stuff? Can’t we just forget about it and move on? Here’s what Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the incoming leader of House Republicans, told Fox News on Monday:
It looks like what [Democrats will] focus on is just more investigations. I think America is too great of a nation to have such a small agenda. I think there are other problems out there that we really should be focused upon. And my belief is, let’s see where we can work together — let’s move America forward.
McCarthy, you may recall, justified the seventh congressional investigation of Benghazi in 2015 by saying, “Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping.”
Everybody makes mistakes, right? This defense implicitly acknowledges that Trump broke the law, but argues that everybody does it:
Thune begins here with a proxy version of the George Costanza argument: “Was that wrong? Should I not have done that? I tell ya, I gotta plead ignorance on this thing, because if anyone had said anything to me when I first started here that that sort of thing was frowned upon…” Really, what candidate hasn’t constructed a scheme to pay hush money to porn stars and Playboy models and concealed it from the public and the authorities?
The second part of Thune's argument, one Trump himself has also embraced, is that this was just a minor violation of complex campaign finance rules that everyone runs afoul of now and again. Even Barack Obama did!
But while Obama’s 2012 campaign was fined, that really was over paperwork issues, such as missing filing deadlines near the end of the race. There was never any allegation of intentional lawbreaking. In contrast, Trump and Cohen took a series of steps to conceal what they were doing, indicating that they knew it was potentially criminal.
They agreed (and we know this because Cohen taped the conversation) that Cohen would set up a shell company to hide the source of hush money payments to Trump’s alleged mistresses. When Cohen paid Daniels for her silence, Trump reimbursed him in installments with funds that were “characterized in Mr. Trump’s records as legal fees” (and if Trump deducted those payments from his taxes, he could be guilty of tax evasion). The fact that Trump lied about the payments is also a pretty clear indicator that it was more than just a paperwork whoopsie.
Michael Cohen is a liar, so Trump is innocent. “As long as Cohen’s a liar, I shouldn’t give much credibility to what he says,” says Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa). “Jesus loves him, but everybody else thinks he’s an idiot,” says Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.). “He’s obviously a sleazeoid grifter. And if I were a prosecutor, I wouldn’t base a prosecution on evidence given to me by Mr. Cohen.” They didn’t specify what they think Cohen is lying about, perhaps because there’s so much documentary evidence of the scheme.
Why aren’t we talking about the things Trump did that weren’t illegal? Another common technique is to isolate some fact about the broader story, insist that it’s mundane and conclude that therefore there were no crimes anywhere. So Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) says, “I don’t know what’s illegal about trying to build a hotel in Russia,” as though we can separate that from the possibility that Trump and those around him may have offered favors such as eased sanctions in exchange for the advance of his business interests.
Nah nah nah, I can’t hear you. Here’s what Sen Orrin G. Hatch told CNN’s Manu Raju:
Asked if he had any concerns that Trump was implicated, Hatch told CNN: “The Democrats will do anything to hurt this President.” Informed it was alleged by federal prosecutors in New York, Hatch said: “OK, but I don’t care, all I can say is he’s doing a good job as President.”
Whatever Trump or anybody else did, it wasn’t collusion. This is a convenient argument, because “collusion” is not a legal term and has a somewhat flexible meaning, which is why you can say anything wasn’t collusion. Meeting with Russians to try to get dirt on your opponent as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump”? If they didn’t slice their palms and shake hands in an eternal blood oath, it’s not collusion.
Trump is innocent, says Trump. This may be the definitive statement of the president’s strategy, and one we’ll be hearing a lot:
Now let's step back and look at the broader context. Republicans offering up these ridiculous arguments probably feel that they have no choice, because their fates are inextricably tied to that of the president who leads their party. Of course, every politician is self-interested, so in theory there could come a point where your average Republican member of Congress no longer sees their self-interest in defending Trump, if doing so does more harm than good to their own political interests. But even as these scandals pile up, that point remains extremely far off.
Any worsening of Trump's scandals will always be bad news for the Republican Party in general, and something on the order of impeachment, resignation, or even just defeat in 2020 will be disastrous for every Republican. Don't forget that most of them represent conservative districts and states where they fear only opposition from the right. And even those who come from more closely divided areas still depend for their reelection on Republican voters mobilizing for them.
As a result, Trump could murder a puppy on live TV and about the worst thing they’d bring themselves to say about it would be, “That was unfortunate, but it’s time we all moved on.” No matter how hard it will be to do with a straight face, they’ll have to keep defending him.