Republicans have a novel way of defending the president: Trump just has no idea what he’s doing.
That strategy was on display during and after ex-FBI Director James Comey’s testimony Thursday detailing President Trump’s attempts to influence the FBI’s Russia probe, which included a meeting in the Oval Office where Trump asked everyone else to leave the room before he pressured Comey to drop the investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
The president’s defenders on Capitol Hill chalked it up to the fact that Trump isn’t a politician or a lawyer and has no background in how to interact with law enforcement.
“The president’s new at this,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said at a press conference during the hearing. “He’s new at government.”
Ryan added that Trump wasn’t “steeped in the long-running protocols” of how presidents should interact with the FBI. Presidents are generally advised against talking to the FBI about pending investigations — especially ones that involve former members of their administration — in order to avoid even the appearance of obstructing justice.
Legal experts told VICE News that Trump’s repeated private conversations with Comey, where he allegedly asked the FBI chief to end the investigation into Mike Flynn and to “lift the cloud” of the Russia probe, may amount to obstruction of justice.
Blaming Trump’s staff
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who is on the Senate Intelligence Committee, went even further than Ryan by blaming Trump’s team for failing to tell the president what’s appropriate when speaking to Comey.
“It’s not clear why that didn’t happen sooner,” Rubio told reporters after the hearing. “It’s a disservice to the president.”
In any case, ignorance of the law is generally not considered a defense against prosecution — but being president is. As long as Republicans defend Trump, it doesn’t matter how bizarre their defense of him gets. Trump will not face impeachment proceedings unless a significant number of Republicans deem them necessary.
“It’s critically important that we stay tuned but [that] we also don’t jump to conclusions,” pleaded Republican Rep. and far-right Freedom Caucus leader Mark Meadows on CNN.
What Trump’s lawyers are saying
Crucially, few Republicans tried to say that Comey’s testimony wasn’t true, instead leaving that task to Trump’s private lawyer Marc Kasowitz. During a press briefing after the hearing, Kasowitz flatly denied Comey’s version of events and indicated that the former FBI chief is a criminal leaker.
“Mr. Comey has now finally confirmed publicly what he repeatedly told the president privately: The president was not under investigation as part of any probe into Russian interference,” Kasowitz said, before going on to say that the president never told Comey “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty,” or tried to impede any investigation — thus suggesting that Comey lied under oath.”
Kasowitz also added that Comey leaked privileged information when he handed a friend a memo detailing how Trump allegedly asked Comey to “let Flynn go,” and suggested that Comey may need to be investigated.
But Richard Nixon’s White House Counsel John Dean told CNN that conversations between the two men are not privileged, while University of Texas constitutional law professor Stephen Vladeck argues that even if they were, it’s irrelevant: Leaking them still wouldn’t be a crime.