Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Opinion: The "naive president" thesis, dissected

President Trump's Republican defenders are falling back upon his incompetence and inexperience to explain away the narrative laid out with such precision by former FBI Director Jim Comey.

In short, they argue, Trump did some things wrong, but he didn't know that he was doing wrong. He didn't know that he was crossing so many legal and ethical lines. It's a PR approach that has great promise, at least initially, because we all know that Trump is indeed incompetent and inexperienced, as he has demonstrated repeatedly in his first few months in office. The story fits the facts.

Except when it doesn't.

If Trump did not know that it was wrong and illegal to pressure Comey into dropping the investigation into Michael Flynn and "lift the cloud" of the Russian investigation, why did he arrange repeated, highly unusual, one-on-one private meetings to do so,  with no witnesses?

In his written testimony, for example, Comey says he got a call from the White House at noon on Jan. 27, inviting him to dinner that night. Comey assumed others would be in attendance as well, and was startled to learn otherwise.

"It turned out to be just the two of us, seated at a small oval table in the center of the Green Room. Two Navy stewards waited on us, only entering the room to serve food and drinks."

That's the rather theatrical dinner during which Trump raised the issue of Comey remaining as FBI director, then asked for Comey's personal loyalty, which Comey refused to give.  His description of that moment is compelling:

"A few moments later, the president said, "I need loyalty, I expect loyalty." I didn't move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence."

According to Comey's testimony, he explained to Trump that he could not be politically loyal, that the position of FBI director, with its 10-year term, was designed to be insulated against politics. Comey was giving the new president the lay of the land in Washington, trying to explain where the lines were, and thought he had done a good job of doing so.

But as Comey makes clear in the rest of his testimony, Trump paid no attention. He paints Trump as a man who never paid attention to rules or restraints on power in his private life, and had no intention of doing so now that he had become president.

(In press interviews, Trump has claimed that it was Comey, not Trump, who initiated the request for that dinner, as if it was Comey, not Trump, who had an agenda. That's a fact that should be easily checked.)

Comey also describes an Oval Office meeting with Trump attended by half a dozen other top staff people, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions. At the end of the meeting, Trump tells everyone but Comey to leave the room. Sessions, Vice President Pence, even Jared Kushner -- none is allowed to remain.

As Comey writes:

"When the door by the grandfather clock closed, and we were alone, the president began by saying, "I want to talk about Mike Flynn ...."

Again, that is not a man unaware that he's doing wrong or in any way naive about what he's doing. That's a man who wants no witnesses to the event.  In a later telephone call, again with only Trump and Comey on the line, Trump repeats his request to "lift the cloud" of the Russian investigation.

Every time Trump raises the question, every time he exerts pressure on the FBI director, there are no witnesses to his doing so. He takes considerable pains to arrange such opportunities. I don't think you can honestly square that fact with the claim that he was naive or didn't know what he was doing. He knew exactly what he was doing. He is a 70-year-old high-level businessman who has dealt with lawyers, casino regulators, investigators and court depositions his entire life. He is many things, but naive is not one of them.

It's also worth noting that in a press conference, Trump has categorically denied asking Comey to "let Flynn go."

Reporter: Did you at any time urge former FBI Director James Comey in any way, shape, or form to close or to back down the investigation into Michael Flynn?

Trump: No. No. Next question.

That's a man who knows right from wrong, but simply chooses not to honor the difference.

Two notes: First, here's an ad funded by an anonymous, pro-Trump SuperPAC attacking Comey just before his testimony is to begin.

Second, I'll be live-tweeting the Comey testimony, and will post the tweets here as updates. If our president chooses to participate in the event via Twitter, I will post those as well.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.