Ignorance of the law is no excuse, according to an old legal principle. But could an exception be made for President Donald Trump?
That thought seemed to be percolating just beneath the surface of House Speaker Paul Ryan’s backhanded defense of President Trump. As former FBI director James Comey accused the president of trying to shut down the FBI’s investigation of Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, Ryan told reporters that the new president has, well, a lot to learn.
“The president’s new at this,” said the Wisconsin Republican in a news conference during Comey’s testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee last week. “He’s new to government, and so he probably wasn’t steeped in the long-running protocols that establish the relationships between DOJ (Department of Justice), FBI and White Houses. He’s just new to this.”
Of course, he’s new. That’s was part of his appeal. For people who hate Washington without knowing much about it, Trump turned his ignorance of the place into an asset.
Remember, “ignorance” is not the same as stupidity. Ignorance is merely a lack of knowledge, capable of being remedied by information and education. Unfortunately, as Ryan hints, this new president’s on-the-job training seems to have penetrated about as well as water off of an old duck’s back.
One wonders, by the way, how Ryan and his fellow Grand Old Party leaders would be treating President Barack Obama if he had blundered into a position like Trump’s. By now, I suspect they would be deep into drawing up impeachment papers. Trump, by contrast, receives the sort of special Washington-insider treatment that Trump used to campaign against.
Even so, cracks are beginning to appear in the GOP’s iron wall of solitary behind their colorful president. Hints of discontent sometimes stand out in their remarks like eye-blinks in a hostage video.
“I’m not saying it’s an acceptable excuse,” Ryan said, after being reminded of the president’s legal counsel and other information resources. “It’s just my observation. He’s new at government, and so therefore I think that he – he is learning as he goes.”
Indeed, “learning as he goes” is fine for a preschooler who is learning how to ride a bike. Presidencies don’t come with training wheels.
Yet they do offer some assistance, as Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida reminded us with a new version of an old reliable legislative scandal buffer: When all else fails, blame your staff.
“My hope is that there are people in the White House that advise the president about what’s appropriate and what isn’t when you’re interacting with the FBI,” Rubio told reporters. “It’s not clear why that didn’t happen sooner, and it was a disservice to the president.”
Or maybe somebody did try to brief the president but, considering his famously impatient attention span, maybe he decided to follow what he has called his “instinctual” side.
Another Republican senator, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, carried the ignorance excuse a little further with a sarcastic comment on CBS' Face the Nation Sunday. “He doesn’t believe he did anything wrong with the Russians and I tend to believe him,” Graham said. “He can’t collude with his own government. Why do you think he is colluding with the Russians?”
That’s the beauty of the ignorance excuse. Trump’s opponents in Washington and the general public already believes he’s an airhead who doesn’t understand government and doesn’t much want to learn.
Some have gone even farther to suggest he suffers from some sort of psychiatric or cognitive impairment. The notion that he stumbled into felonious obstruction of justice because he simply didn’t know any better carries weight with multitudes who are predisposed to believe it.
But look again. Trump has a track record of ignoring urgent warnings from others that get in the way of his plans. For example, he hired Mike Flynn despite warnings from President Obama and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates. Comey’s account indicates that Trump continued to go to bat for Flynn even after a scandal forced Flynn to resign.
In other words, Trump’s errors appear to be not the random acts of a rattlebrain but deliberate acts to help his friend, despite appearances of impropriety. As easy as it may be for some to believe otherwise, he should have known better.