Donald Trump
Credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff/flickr

Even the briefest observation of Donald Trump is adequate to confirm that he is not a man of profound intellect. He certainly possesses his share of social intelligence, a knack for salesmanship and an obsessive drive to dominate and humiliate others stemming from a yawning maw of overlapping insecurities. But in terms of how we traditionally measure intelligence in the modern developed world–the acquisition of knowledge over time and the ability to process, digest and act cogently in response to complex information–Trump probably doesn’t even reach the 50th percentile of Americans. And that is being generous.

This basic fact is difficult to keep in mind when assessing his decisions because we have never had a president like this. Society tends to dramatically overestimate the talent and intelligence of those fortunate enough to be rich and powerful, but rarely are they as objectively ignorant and lacking in basic competency as Trump. Far too often we look for a schema or strategy behind Trump’s actions, only to discover that his decisions were precipitated by the dumbest of reasons: because he saw a Fox News segment that made him angry, or because he heard that Barack Obama had originated a policy, because some extraneous person mentioned some falsehood to him that he was credulous enough to believe, or because he was openly bribed. This principle has become known as “Trump’s Razor“: when seeking to understand the president’s behavior, look for the stupidest possible reason.

I mention all this because while I don’t fully believe it myself, we must at least consider the possibility that Trump’s bizarre behavior with respect to Russian collusion, the Mueller probe, and his obstruction of justice is that he literally does not understand when he committed crimes or what is wrong with what he did. His social intelligence and gut instinct for politics certainly leads him to understand that some aspects of the collusion and obstruction would be politically damaging to him if they fully came out. But it’s entirely possible that at a moral level and, crucially, at a legal one, he simply isn’t smart enough to grasp the enormity of the crimes he and his associates seem to have committed.

That’s the picture that emerges from this portrait of Trump’s mood in the White House today, particularly regarding Paul Manafort and his son Donald Jr.:

The president privately fumed to one friend after another — on Air Force One, in the Oval Office and over the phone — that Manafort “has absolutely nothing to do with me,” according to people close to him. Although Trump tells them he feels bad for Manafort, he also has been complimentary of Judge T.S. Ellis, who has asked sharp questions of Mueller’s prosecutors…

As Trump sees it, Mueller is aggressively prosecuting Manafort — detailing his alleged tax evasion and bank fraud scheme and flashing snapshots of his extravagant wardrobe for the jury— to deliberately embarrass Trump and undermine his presidency. And, according to people familiar with the president’s thinking, he believes the news ­media is complicit…

Still, Trump has confided to friends and advisers that he is worried the Mueller probe could destroy the lives of what he calls “innocent and decent people” — namely Trump Jr., who is under scrutiny by Mueller for his role organizing a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower with Russians promising dirt on Hillary Clinton. As one adviser described the president’s thinking, he does not believe his son purposefully broke the law, but is fearful nonetheless that Trump Jr. inadvertently may have wandered into legal ­jeopardy.

Reading this, one of three things must be true. The first possibility is that Trump is innocent of any more wrongdoing than has already been revealed in the press. That seems incredibly unlikely given damning new quotidian revelations and the ever receding backtracking of the president’s communications team, even to the point of floating the notion that “collusion is not a crime.”

The second possibility is that the various advisers who gave the Washington Post these vignettes of a brooding president are holding back on the full story of a president knowingly and actively attempting to cover his tracks after committing crimes that he well knows could lead not only to impeachment but even his incarceration. That is still the likeliest probability.

But we cannot exclude the notion that Trump legitimately believes that he did nothing wrong, and that the Mueller probe is a ginned up investigation seeking to get him and his associates in trouble on what he views as technicalities and trivialities.

This might seem astonishing, but consider that Trump has never in his entire career in business or entertainment faced consequences for his actions. He has never worked for a boss or even a board of directors. He has managed to pawn off his debts onto others with every bankruptcy, he has crushed negative news stories and potential whistleblowers with a mix of bribes and intimidation, he has hired fixers to get around inconvenient red tape, as well as moral and legal obstacles, and he has spent a lifetime making business deals with everyone from mafia figures to despots in the developing world. For Trump, the rules are for little people and you make “deals” through almost any transactional means necessary.

It’s entirely possible that Trump has spent the last decade deeply involved in the Russian criminal underworld, that they have both compromising personal and financial information about him, and that he fundamentally agrees with their worldview. It’s further possible that when the Russians came calling and said they had stolen negative information about Clinton and would release it in exchange for certain favors, Trump didn’t even understand that agreeing to the bargain would be a massive criminal offense. It’s theoretically possible that he believed that it would cease to matter if he lost, but that if he did become president, he would be able to run the entire government with the same autocratic control with which he runs his business, and make whatever problems arose from his actions go away.

In other words, Trump may lack both the moral compass and the legal wherewithal to even comprehend the magnitude of his crimes and the precariousness of his situation. He certainly understands how politically inconvenient all of this is for him, yet it’s not entirely clear that he grasps why this isn’t a witch hunt, but perhaps the biggest scandal in all of American history.

Again, I’m not entirely convinced of this thesis. It’s still most likely that Trump is simply a knowing criminal scurrying like a rat caught in a trap. But that assumes a level of moral and intellectual capacity on Trump’s part that may not even be present.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.