Trump defenders portray him as incompetent and ignorant

As public congressional hearings on President Donald Trump’s wrongdoing begin, his strongest defenders are rolling out the argument that Trump is an incompetent president who isn’t responsible for the Ukraine shakedown.

Sen. Lindsey Graham embraced the incompetence defense, saying, “What I can tell you about the Trump policy toward Ukraine: It was incoherent, it depends on who you talk to, they seem to be incapable of forming a quid pro quo.”

Besides portraying Trump as lacking the competence to be corrupt, another defense is that Trump didn’t know about this corrupt scheme. 

According to New York Times reporters Michael Shear and Nicholas Fandos, what Trump defenders said during depositions indicate that “Republicans would portray figures like Mr. Giuliani as working in his own interests, not at Mr. Trump’s behest; and that they would argue that Mr. Sondland, a political megadonor with little diplomatic experience, was a braggart who exaggerated his relationship with Mr. Trump and essentially freelanced on his behalf.”

In this Oct. 24 file photo, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, speaks during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington. Republicans have no unified argument in the impeachment inquiry of Donald Trump in large part because they can’t agree on how to defend the president. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Thus Trump’s defenders’ answer to the famous Watergate question — “What did the president know and when did he know it?” — is that Trump was ignorant of the efforts to use taxpayer funds to extort a foreign country to help Trump’s political chances, and was thus an incompetent president.

But there are five major problems with the ignorance and incompetence defense, starting with the president’s constitutional responsibilities. 

First, presidents must follow the law, and the president’s job is fundamental to having a lawful government. 

According to the Constitution, the president must “take care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” When swearing to uphold the Constitution as part of the oath of office, the president is pledging to follow the law and have an administration that acts lawfully. 

Founder Alexander Hamilton explained in the Federalist Papers that the presidency is “essential to the protection of the community against foreign attacks” and “essential to the steady administration of the laws.” 

Witnesses and documents show there was an extensive, months-long effort by the administration to pressure Ukraine for domestic political gain. 

Asking for campaign help from Ukraine was illegal under federal election law, whether it was done by Trump or others in the administration, and it was the sort of abuse of power for which the founders designed the impeachment process.

Second, there is ample evidence that Trump was enmeshed in attempts to hold back funds to Ukraine to try to help his political prospects.

In the memorandum of the call Trump had with Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky, after talking about military aid, Trump said, “I would like you to do us a favor though” and then brought up investigating the Bidens. 

Moreover, Trump publicly stated he wanted Ukraine to launch an investigation of Joe Biden’s son. 

Third, Trump claimed he was fighting corruption, but that’s never been a foreign policy priority for his administration. 

Trump’s purported concerns about corruption also lack credibility because he’s engaged in fraud in his own dealings. Last week, Trump was fined $2 million for using money from his family foundation for self-dealing, such as using $2.82 million for his campaign that donors were told would go to help veterans, buying a $10,000 painting of Trump and hanging it at Mar-a-Lago, donating $25,000 to a Florida politician, and advertising a Trump hotel. 

Fourth, as die-hard Trump backers in Congress push the ignorance and incompetence defense, more witnesses will speak out. The lawyer for former National Security Adviser John Bolton said Bolton was involved in “many relevant meetings and conversations that have not yet been discussed in the testimonies thus far.” 

Fifth, it’s likely Trump will again publicly assert he pushed Ukraine to do his political bidding if only because he doesn’t like being portrayed as ignorant and incompetent. 

But as this absurd defense rises and falls, other equally ridiculous defenses keep getting made, none of which counter the fundamental reality that Trump undermined national and international security to try to help himself. 

Elected officials who don’t recognize Trump’s Ukraine shakedown as an impeachable abuse of power will have breached their oaths of office to support and defend the Constitution.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.