Donald Trump
Credit: Evan Guest/Flickr

Perhaps it is a matter or expectations, but my reaction to how the Republicans handled themselves during the Comey hearing yesterday is different than what I’m hearing from a lot of people. I never expected them to jump on the impeachment bandwagon—at least not yesterday. But as I noted in my live-blog of the hearing:

Republican members of the committee don’t seem to be challenging the basics of Comey’s testimony and simply are snipping around the edges of things like why he didn’t act more strongly when Trump asked him to drop the Flynn investigation. The main takeaway is that they seem to accept that his accounts are true.

One reason why that is significant is that if Republicans accept Comey’s testimony as true (something Trump’s lawyer was obviously not willing to concede), this is what he said:

  1. Trump lies
  2. Trump asked for loyalty from Comey in exchange for keeping his job
  3. Trump asked Comey to drop the Flynn investigation
  4. Trump fired Comey in order to affect the Russia investigation

I suspect that since most of us have known these things for about a month now, they have lost some of their punch. But Comey testified to those things publicly under oath yesterday and they are huge bombshells about a sitting president.

In response, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee didn’t attack Comey or his testimony. A few of them tried to divert the conversation and talk about Clinton’s emails and the others, as Adam Serwer notes, settled for what basically amounts to an incompetence defense.

During former FBI Director James Comey’s dramatic testimony before the Senate on Thursday, Republican senators settled on a pair of strange arguments for why President Trump hadn’t obstructed justice: He didn’t try very hard, or he was really bad at it.

It is also important to note that Speaker Paul Ryan didn’t challenge Comey’s account either. He too embraced the incompetence defense by saying that Trump is merely new to all of this mumbo jumbo about the proper relationship between the president and the FBI.

Adam Serwer goes on the explain how incompetence fails as a legal defense. That’s probably why Trump’s lawyer, Marc Kosowitz didn’t use it and, instead attacked Comey as a leaker and a liar. But none of this is happening in a court of law or an impeachment trail just yet. Instead, it is playing out in the court of public opinion. As Michael Tomasky learned recently, that is what Republicans are paying attention to.

I was talking with a Democratic lawmaker the other night. Not a bomb-thrower. Do they know, I asked; in their private moments, do the Republicans understand the combustible cocktail of ignorance, narcissism, and disregard for anything but his own glory that reposes in what passes for this man’s soul? Oh, yes, came the answer. They know. But for now, they’re afraid of his voters.

Bill Kristol basically confirms what Tomasky’s source said.

If the latest Quinnipiac poll is showing a trend, Trump’s approval rating has now dropped to 34 percent. His true believers will probably never budge. But we’re getting to the point where people are asking what that floor might be.

I suspect that what we’re seeing from Republicans lately (especially Senators who don’t have the luxury of running in deeply red gerrymandered districts) is an awareness that they can’t go after Trump outright yet, but they also can’t mount a clear defense of him either. In other words, they’re walking a fine line where an incompetence defense is the most they’re willing to risk.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.