After James Comey’s sworn Senate testimony Thursday, even stalwart Republicans are finding it harder to deny that Donald Trump has no business being president. But it’s not stopping them from defending him anyway or from bringing the nation closer to disaster.
House Speaker Paul Ryan tried to excuse the most incriminating portions of Comey’s statement—the highly detailed claims that Trump pressured him to swear loyalty, to drop the probe of Michael Flynn, and to tell the public that Trump himself was not under criminal investigation—by saying that the president is “just new to this.” In other words, Ryan was saying, Trump isn’t a crook; he’s just ignorant.
Leaving aside the civic bromide that ignorance is no excuse when it comes to breaking the law, Ryan is off the mark, at least in this case. Trump kicked several officials out of his office before twisting the FBI director’s arm. As Comey asked at his hearing, why would he do that if he didn’t know he was about to engage in improper behavior?
New Jersey Gov. (and former Trump transition-team chairman) Chris Christie came closer to honesty, dismissing the president’s exchanges with Comey as “normal New York conversation.” This might indeed be the perception of a man who once prosecuted white-collar criminals, including Jared Kushner’s father, in the New York metropolitan area. In other words, Christie was saying, Trump is just strutting like a slippery operator—not quite the exoneration that he may have intended.
So these are the GOP’s rationales for Trump’s behavior: He was only talking like a felon, he didn’t necessarily commit a crime; and if he did, it’s only because he didn’t know what he was doing. It’s hard to believe that even the likes of Ryan and Christie aren’t a little disturbed by this state of affairs—not only because of what might be uncovered next, but because of what they are facing and abetting right now. By the powers vested in his office, Trump has immense powers (among other things, he has the nuclear codes), and his defenders are tolerating his presence in this office, even while knowing the risks.
Yes, “He’s just new to this,” but that’s the problem, or part of the problem. In fact, all presidents are “new to this.” As most of them have confessed after their terms, no experience quite prepares one for the lonely pressures of the Oval Office. But Trump takes a novice’s limits to new levels. Not only did he enter the job with no knowledge of its nature (despite bragging that he alone could fix everything), he installed an equally clueless entourage. He somehow thought that his 36-year-old son-in-law could make peace in the Middle East. He thought that the best person to hire as an outside counsel, to deal with the fallout from the Russia scandals, would be his divorce lawyer. (After the Comey hearing, this defense lawyer issued a particularly lame response, which at once lauded the testimony as vindication and blasted it as perjury.)
Trump doesn’t know what he doesn’t know—and that’s the most dangerous kind of ignorant leader. Take the flare-up between the Gulf states and Qatar, which has a real potential of escalating to an all-out conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The underlying tensions of this conflict have been brewing for some time, but the flare-up is entirely Trump’s doing. First, his speech in Riyadh encouraged the Saudis to step up their pressure on Qatar. Then, instead of sending his diplomats to calm matters, he took credit for the development in a tweet, in which he also tagged Qatar as a financier of terrorism—perhaps unaware that Qatar also hosts the United States’ largest military base in the region, home to 10,000 American troops and the Central Command’s air combat center.
True, Qatar is a small country that doesn’t enter into many conversations. But this is why presidents have an experienced national security staff to consult before unleashing their ids.
We now know that Trump’s failure to reassure the European allies that he would come to their defense in case of an attack, a guarantee pledged in Article 5 of the North Atlantic treaty, wasn’t a mere oversight. This reassurance—which is all that the allies needed to hear from him—was included in the final draft of the speech he was to give in Brussels. But Trump deleted the sentence. Why? Under whose influence? Did he do this because of a substantive policy disagreement, personal pique, something else? No one knows.
Does anyone know what U.S. foreign policy is right now? (If anyone does, step forward.) Are we committed to defend the NATO alliance, as Trump’s secretary of defense, secretary of state, and national security adviser insist, or not—as Trump himself seems to suggest? Are we grateful to Qatar and keen to mediate any looming conflict it might face, as those same Cabinet secretaries have said—or not, as indicated by Trump’s tweets?
Yes, he’s new to this—but he hasn’t taken a single step to grow into the job. Yes, he may have had what he sees as a normal New York conversation—but he doesn’t grasp that negotiating with Europe and the Middle East is different from dealing with tenants and contractors in the Manhattan real-estate market. One of these days, he may confront a crisis that’s not of his own making, and nobody knows—and everyone fears—what he might do. The Republicans are no less fearful of this prospect, and yet they do nothing but make excuses for doing nothing. The warning that Comey’s testimony sends to Republicans is this: If the bell ever tolls for Donald Trump, it will also toll for thee. The bigger worry is that, sometime before then, it may toll for us all.