President Donald Trump has an unfortunate habit of openly soliciting crimes. Sometimes it’s bribery, sometimes it’s violence, and sometimes it’s foreign collusion in American elections. Occasionally, the president’s overtness puts congressional Republicans in an awkward position. So, when they’re asked to respond to these statements, they’ve come up with a standard line: He’s kidding.
There’s just one problem: Trump doesn’t get the joke. He keeps making it clear that he’s serious.
On July 26, 2016, based on a high-confidence assessment by U.S. intelligence agencies, the New York Times reported that embarrassing emails about Hillary Clinton and other Democrats, released by WikiLeaks, had been hacked by the Russian government. The next day, at a press conference in Florida, Trump invited Russia to do more hacking. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” said Trump. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press. Let’s see if that happens.”
Republicans laughed off Trump’s suggestion as a “joke.” But Trump didn’t. When journalists questioned whether he was serious, he stood his ground. “Do you have any pause about asking a foreign government—Russia, China, anybody—to interfere, to hack into the system of anybody in this country?” a reporter asked the candidate. Trump stared back, straight-faced, and affirmed that on reflection, he saw nothing wrong with the idea. “No, it gives me no pause,” he said. “If Russia or China or any other country has those emails, I mean, to be honest with you, I’d love to see them.”
Two years later, on Oct. 18, 2018, Trump spoke at a Republican campaign rally in Montana. He praised Rep. Greg Gianforte, who had pleaded guilty to assaulting a reporter in 2017 for asking a question about health care. (According to a Fox News correspondent who witnessed the attack, Gianforte grabbed the reporter by the neck, slammed him to the ground, and punched him. The reporter had to go to the hospital.) At the rally, Trump mimicked the assault and told the crowd, “Any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my kind of—he’s my guy.”
Again, Republicans shrugged off the remark. Rep. Steve Scalise, the House Republican whip, said Trump was just “ribbing” Gianforte. Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska suggested that the president was being “playful.” Eric Trump said his dad was just having “fun.” But video of the rally showed Trump warming to the idea and arguing that, on reflection, Gianforte’s attack was politically helpful and morally blameless. At one point, Trump glanced off camera at somebody who seemed embarrassed by Trump’s endorsement of the body slam. “There’s nothing to be embarrassed about,” said the president.
The next day, at a signing ceremony in Arizona, Trump was given an opportunity to disown the remark, or at least to make clear that it was facetious. A journalist asked him, “Do you regret bringing up, last night at your rally, the assault on a reporter by a congressman?” Again, Trump stared back without a trace of irony. “No. Not at all,” he replied. “Greg is a tremendous person. And he’s a tough cookie. And I’ll stay with that.”
Last week, Trump solicited another violation of the law. On Oct. 3, in an exchange at the White House, a reporter asked him why he had urged the president of Ukraine, in a phone call, to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden. Trump defended his request, repeating that Ukraine “should investigate the Bidens.” Then, unprompted, he segued to a completely different country. “And, by the way,” he said, “likewise, China should start an investigation into the Bidens.”
Again, Republicans brushed off Trump’s proposal as a prank. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said the president was “just needling the press,” not making “a real request.” Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri said Trump was trying “to bait the press,” not being “serious.” Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio said Trump was just “getting the press all spun up,” not genuinely suggesting that China should “go investigate the Bidens.”
These characterizations don’t square with video of the exchange. Trump’s demeanor was dead earnest. When a reporter followed up to see whether he was serious—“Have you asked President Xi to investigate?”—the president replied, again without a trace of irony: “I haven’t, but it’s certainly something we can start thinking about. Because I’m sure that President Xi does not like being under that kind of scrutiny, where billions of dollars is taken out his country by a guy that just got kicked out of the Navy.”
On Thursday, Trump was given a second chance to say that his request to China was a joke. Again, he spurned the opportunity. A reporter asked him, “Were you joking when you asked China to investigate the Bidens?” “China has to do whatever they want,” Trump replied without any change of expression. “If China wants to look into something, I think that’s great. And if they don’t want to, I think that’s great too.” On Friday, Trump again suggested that China should look into the family. “China can do whatever they want,” the president told reporters, “with respect to one-and-a-half billion dollars” that was supposedly (but not actually) entrusted to Biden’s son.
Trump sometimes pretends, after the fact, that he was joking. That’s what he did in 2018, when special counsel Robert Mueller asked about the July 2016 press conference in which Trump invited Russia to hack Clinton’s emails. Trump told Mueller that video of the press conference showed his request was “in jest.” But Russian operatives, watching the video, concluded that it wasn’t. “Within five hours of Trump’s remark,” says Mueller’s report, “a Russian intelligence service began targeting email accounts associated with Hillary Clinton for possible hacks.”
It’s true that Trump thinks all of this is fun. He loves the idea of foreign countries targeting his opponents. He thinks beating up reporters is hilarious. But that doesn’t mean he’s joking. It just means he’s twisted. And Republicans like Rubio, who shrug off the president’s outbursts, aren’t more clever or sophisticated than the rest of us. They’re just cowards.