As former FBI director James B. Comey held the political world in thrall Thursday from inside a packed Senate hearing room, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan walked into an unusually empty press briefing across the Capitol.
Before Comey’s testimony about his private interactions with President Trump had even concluded, Ryan joined an effort already underway among GOP lawmakers to place it in the best possible light for Trump.
“Of course there needs to be a degree of independence” between federal law enforcement and the White House, Ryan said. But he added, “The president’s new at this. He’s new to government, and so he probably wasn’t steeped in the long-running protocols that establish the relationships between [the Justice Department], FBI and White House. He’s just new to this.”
Ryan later made clear that he was “not saying it’s an acceptable excuse” and that his remark was “just my observation.” But he was one of many GOP lawmakers willing to minimize Trump’s alleged meddling and demands for loyalty as the fumblings of a political tyro — or the behavior of a real estate mogul accustomed to having his orders followed.
“It has to still be legal and right and all that, but I think a lot of it is — he’s used to being the CEO,” Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), an early Trump endorser, said Wednesday after Comey’s preliminary statement was published.
While playing up Trump’s naivete is currently one strain of his political defense, legal analysts said it could also be a kernel of a criminal defense. It could be at least a somewhat viable defense to suggest that Trump, who has no direct experience in government or law enforcement, merely didn’t know any better when he was interacting with Comey.
To substantiate an obstruction of justice case under criminal law, a prosecutor has to prove a person acted corruptly. If Trump was merely acting foolishly, he would be legally okay.
“It’s just another way of saying that maybe he had innocent intent, just didn’t appreciate how inappropriate or wrongful it would appear to people who have been around law enforcement,” said Kelly Kramer, a white-collar criminal defense attorney at the Mayer Brown law firm.
Some analysts said the defense could ring hollow — particularly given that, according to Comey, Trump isolated him, ordering everyone else out of the Oval Office before making the request about dropping the Michael Flynn investigation. Trump’s own lawyer, meanwhile, outright disputed Comey’s version of the facts, rather than suggesting that the president was merely naive to the ways of government and investigations. For his part, Comey testified, “I hope there’s tapes” to corroborate his version of events.
On Capitol Hill, at least one lawmaker said ignorance of the law and Washington norms are not excuses.
“That’s why you have a chief of staff. That’s why you have legal counsel,” said Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), who endured a scandal over an extramarital affair when he was governor of his state in 2009. “The idea of ‘I’m new’ probably doesn’t pass muster in the corporate world, the nonprofit world, much less the body politic.”
Most Capitol Hill Republicans have tended to view Trump fundamentally as a businessman, a man preoccupied with forging deals using all of the tools he developed in his business career — charm, showmanship, coercion, threats.
Those traits have marked Trump’s relations with lawmakers — particularly as he embarked on his first congressional sales job: persuading House Republicans to pass a hugely controversial health-care bill.
In one episode, he confronted the leader of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus inside a private meeting of Republicans. If the bloc didn’t back the health-care bill, “I’m gonna come after you,” Trump said to Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), adding: “But I know I won’t have to, because I know you’ll vote ‘yes.’ ”
Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), a Freedom Caucus member, recalled being lobbied personally by Trump on the bill and suggested a line could be drawn from that experience to Trump’s entreaties to Comey.
“It’s like a real estate deal closing — just a transaction: ‘Let’s get this thing done. Let’s win on it,’ ” Brat recalled. “In the new role, he’s got everyone jumping on every sentence he says, so that’s the tricky part. . . . He’s a business guy. He just wants results.”
Comey’s statement and Thursday’s testimony paint a more damning picture — including a dramatic Feb. 14 meeting in the Oval Office where Comey said Trump asked him to stay behind after a meeting with other officials. Then, he said, Trump raised the subject of the criminal investigation into Flynn, his former national security adviser, and whether Comey could “let this go.”
Comey testified Thursday that he interpreted that remark as a direction to end the probe into Flynn.
While the Republican National Committee blasted out attacks on Comey’s credibility this week, Trump’s Republican defenders on Capitol Hill have largely stayed away from trying to attack the former FBI director’s veracity, instead trying to reframe what he said. That has served to reinforce an emerging GOP view that Trump’s behavior was ham-handed and inappropriate, but not illegal or impeachable.
Ryan said in an MSNBC interview Wednesday that it was “obviously” not appropriate for Trump to ask Comey for a personal pledge of loyalty.
At the hearing, Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho) sought to challenge Comey’s interpretations of Trump’s remarks, questioning Comey about whether Trump’s exact words as he reported — “I hope you can let this go” — would support the inference.
“You don’t know of anyone that’s ever been charged for hoping something. Is that a fair statement?” Risch asked.
“I don’t, as I sit here,” Comey replied, prompting Risch to yield his questioning.
Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), an early and fervent Trump backer, called the president’s intervention on Flynn’s behalf — a day after his firing — “a normal human reaction.”
“I think he’s a human being first,” he said. “I have absolutely no problem with what the president of the United States said. It is clearly not anywhere close to touching something called obstruction of justice, and I’m frankly proud of him for standing for someone who was as loyal as Mike Flynn was throughout the campaign.”
Collins said “of course” Trump ought to be given deference because of his inexperience in political office. “But the press isn’t going to give him any slack,” he said. “It isn’t going to happen.”
Ryan also took a sympathetic tack, pointing to Comey’s statement that he had told Trump he was not personally subject to a criminal probe — backing up an assertion in Trump’s letter firing Comey that had been widely questioned.
“People now realize why the president is so frustrated when the FBI director tells him on three different occasions he is not under investigation, yet the speculation swirls around the political system that he is,” Ryan said.
Brat echoed several of his colleagues in arguing that the essence of Trump’s appeal to voters was his bull-in-a-china-shop sensibility and that it would be silly to expect anything else.
“This city’s just full of carefully crafted nonsense,” he said. “The whole nation’s crashing. They hired a businessman — give him a chance.”
Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.