We can’t foul out the pres­i­dent

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - Matt Welch is ed­i­tor at large of Rea­son, a magazine pub­lished by the lib­er­tar­ian Rea­son Foun­da­tion, and a con­tribut­ing writer to Opin­ion. By Matt Welch

We won!” Pres­i­dent Trump’s lawyer Marc Ka­sowitz re­port­edly en­thused af­ter for­mer FBI di­rec­tor James Comey re­leased his open­ing state­ment in ad­vance of Thurs­day’s tele­vised Se­nate hear­ing. “Comey de­liv­ers dra­matic re­buke of Trump,” read the post-tes­ti­mony head­line in The Hill. What if both sides are right? Comey did con­firm that the pres­i­dent was not un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion, and that there’s no known ev­i­dence of Rus­sia tam­per­ing with votes in last Novem­ber’s elec­tion. At the same time, the na­tion’s for­mer top cop painted a damn­ing por­trait of an er­ratic, ly­ing pres­i­dent whose ham-fisted in­ter­ac­tions skirted up to the edge of ob­struc­tion of jus­tice.

Whether the lat­ter charge rises to the level of crim­i­nal­ity will be a ques­tion for spe­cial pros­e­cu­tor Robert Mueller. As Comey him­self pointed out back when he de­clined to pros­e­cute Hil­lary Clin­ton over her use of a per­sonal email server, crim­i­nal in­tent mat­ters.

But in the mean­time, and in the ab­sence of po­ten­tially damn­ing in­for­ma­tion about, say, Trump’s fi­nan­cial re­la­tion­ships with Rus­sian en­ti­ties, we may be blun­der­ing into a kind of worst-case sce­nario. What if un­der all that smoke there’s just smoke? What if the pres­i­dent’s mis­be­hav­ior is due to in­com­pe­tence and boor­ish­ness, not cor­rup­tion and col­lu­sion? Are we re­ally pre­pared to im­peach a guy over a tweet ?

Democrats call foul — and with jus­ti­fi­ca­tion — when Repub­li­cans like House Speaker Paul Ryan shrug and say Trump is “just new to this” gov­ern­ing stuff.

Still, Ryan’s not wrong. Be­ing ig­no­rant and/or con­temp­tu­ous of the mores and rit­u­als of the po­lit­i­cal class was ar­guably Trump’s big­gest sell­ing point as a can­di­date dur­ing 2016’s vir­u­lently anti-es­tab­lish­ment elec­tion. Anx­i­ety-stricken com­men­ta­tors treated each new vi­o­la­tion of norms — from the Mex­i­can rapists to the “Ac­cess Hol­ly­wood” tape to the Mus­lim ban — as ei­ther a cam­paign-killer, or proof that the coun­try has fallen into moral de­cay. Trump vot­ers, mean­time, viewed the news me­dia’s hy­per­ven­ti­la­tion as val­i­da­tion that their can­di­date was not one of them.

This is not pre­sented here as an ex­cuse for Trump, but rather as a prac­ti­cal po­lit­i­cal prob­lem for Amer­ica. We know, defini­tively, that Don­ald Trump will lie, con­tra­dict him­self, and step all over the con­ven­tions of pres­i­den­tial be­hav­ior. We also know that’s what a sig­nif­i­cant per­cent­age of vot­ers liked, and still like, about the guy.

This ad­min­is­tra­tion is al­most ex­cru­ci­at­ingly in­ex­pe­ri­enced, in part be­cause there isn’t a deep bench of po­lit­i­cal tal­ent who be­lieve in the rough tenets of Trump­ism: skep­ti­cism of mul­ti­lat­eral in­sti­tu­tions, mer­can­tilist ideas on trade, bel­liger­ence to­ward rad­i­cal Is­lam, sus­pi­cion of im­mi­grants. Plenty of ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials share the pres­i­dent’s in­abil­ity to color in­side the lines.

What else do we know? That with the ex­cep­tion of Re­pub­li­can of­fice-hold­ers, who are re­luc­tant to cross swords with the guy, much of of­fi­cial, in­sti­tu­tional Wash­ing­ton de­spises Don­ald Trump.

The press hates him: Only 20 news­pa­pers na­tion­wide en­dorsed him for pres­i­dent, com­pared with more than 240 for Hil­lary Clin­ton, and that was be­fore “Fake News” be­came a hash­tag. The in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity is no great fan, what with his com­par­ing the CIA to Nazis and all. Wher­ever you see the es­tab­lish­ment in Wash­ing­ton — the Brook­ings In­sti­tute, the Wash­ing­ton Post ed­i­to­rial page, even the or­gans of es­tab­lish­ment con­ser­vatism — you see the strong­est con­dem­na­tions of Trump.

Can all these facets of the es­tab­lish­ment col­lude to help de­rail this pres­i­dency? If so, there well bet­ter be fire un­derneath that smoke. Hav­ing Michael Flynn call the Rus­sians dur­ing a tran­si­tion to talk about sanc­tions, and then lie about it, is bad be­hav­ior, but only that. Hav­ing mul­ti­ple in­ap­pro­pri­ate and highly sug­ges­tive con­ver­sa­tions with the FBI di­rec­tor is a se­ri­ous breach of con­duct, but not Nixo­nian.

The in­sti­tu­tions that Trump dis­dains are now watch­ing his ev­ery move. He will lash back, fire peo­ple, write dumb tweets, at­tempt to in­flu­ence things he should not. But if that is all he does, and there no se­cret cor­rup­tion or fi­nan­cial ties ex­ist un­derneath all that squir­relly be­hav­ior by ad­min­is­tra­tion in­com­pe­tents, then seiz­ing on those mis­takes to pre­ma­turely end even the most dis­taste­ful of pres­i­den­cies would come with real dan­ger.

The coun­try is in a kind of emo­tional state of hy­per di­vi­sion that most Amer­i­cans have never ex­pe­ri­enced. If peo­ple vote for a pres­i­dent to con­front the es­tab­lish­ment they de­spise, and then force him out on ticky-tack fouls, we may look back on 2016 as a high-wa­ter mark in comity.

Chip So­mod­ev­illa Getty

FOR­MER FBI Di­rec­tor James Comey tes­ti­fied that the pres­i­dent f louted rules, but Trump sup­port­ers like that.

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