Is Stupidity a Valid Defense for Trump?

The House managers spent a good amount of time during the impeachment trial on Thursday talking about how ridiculous it was for the president of the United States to be pushing the Crowdstrike conspiracy theory on a foreign head of state. Trump took an impossible and silly story cooked up by the Russians and deputized Rudy Giuliani to convince Ukraine to formally accept it by announcing that they would investigate it.

Perhaps the most farcical part of this is that the theory attempts to blame Ukraine for hacking into the Democratic National Headquarters and then spreading the most damaging information to WikiLeaks in order to hurt Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. At the same time, Russia and Trump argue that Ukraine was trying to help Clinton in 2016.

These two ideas are mutually exclusive, but that doesn’t matter to the Kremlin or the White House.

In the president’s defense, Senator Lindsey Graham says, “All I can tell you is from the president’s point of view, he did nothing wrong in his mind,” and if Trump “thought he was doing something wrong, he would probably shut up about it.”

It’s an interesting defense, in part because it’s not really clear that it’s true.

After all, Trump would not be president today if he had not first promoted the Obama birther conspiracy theory and thereby won over a good part of the conservative base that reveled in his audacious and unrepentant racism. That theory was equally implausible, holding that Barack Obama should not be president because he wasn’t born in America, even though that alone would not have made him ineligible. Obama’s mother was an American citizen, so even if he had been born in Kenya, he still would have been considered a natural-born citizen. In any case, all the evidence supported the fact that Obama had been born in Honolulu.

In 2011, Trump claimed that he’d paid for investigators to visit Hawaii and that they had found evidence to support his theory. He was lying.

During the height of Donald Trump’s relentless birtherism in 2011, the reality TV star claimed he had personally sent investigators to Hawaii to uncover information about President Barack Obama’s birthplace and boasted that they couldn’t “believe what they’re finding.”

But there’s no proof he ever did that.

Now let’s flash-forward to December 2019.

Rudy Giuliani spent last week galivanting across eastern Europe, meeting with nefarious characters, stepping on his party’s talking points, and looking for clues that might help Donald Trump, hurt Joe Biden, and exonerate Russia from its attack on U.S. elections in 2016. Over the weekend, his Oval Office client gave reporters an update on the former mayor’s efforts.

Here is what the Wall Street Journal reported about what happened when Giuliani got back from his trip:

When he returned to New York last Saturday, the president called him as his plane was still taxiing down the runway, Mr. Giuliani said. “‘What did you get?’” he said Mr. Trump asked. “More than you can imagine,” Mr. Giuliani replied. He is putting his findings into a 20-page report.

And here is Donald Trump’s version:

“Well, I just know he came back from someplace, and he’s going to make a report, I think to the attorney general and to Congress. He says he has a lot of good information. I have not spoken to him about that information.

“But Rudy, as you know, has been one of the great crime fighters of the last 50 years. And he did get back from Europe just recently, and I know – he has not told me what he found, but I think he wants to go before Congress and say – and also to the attorney general and the Department of Justice. I hear he’s found plenty.”

The only difference between this incident and the early Hawaii “investigation” is that Trump actually did dispatch an investigator in 2019.

But we’re still left wondering if Trump actually believes in the conspiracy theories that he promulgates or he just uses them cynically to confuse others. There’s actually evidence on both sides of that argument. He clearly believes all kinds of loony things, like that it would be a good idea to explode a nuclear weapon in a hurricane. He recently confused the Indian prime minister by telling him its fortunate that India doesn’t share a border with China. The man is a moron and it’s plausible that he believes all manner of impossible things.

On the other hand, there’s this:

President Trump held a Social Media Summit at the White House on Thursday and praised content creators across platforms such as Twitter and YouTube for the “crap” that they come up with.

“Some of you are extraordinary. Can’t say everybody,” Trump said. “No, but some of you are extraordinary. The crap you think of is unbelievable. Unbelievable.”

In this example, Trump seems to be fully aware that his allies are promoting false stories on social media and even seems to appreciate their ingenuity in coming up with inventive lies. It seems clear that at least some of the time, Trump is aware that the stuff he is retweeting is “crap.”

Still, it takes a certain amount of shamelessness and lack of self-respect to take a story you know is bullshit and bring it up in a call with a foreign leader:

The President: I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike… I guess you have one of your wealthy people… The server, they say Ukraine has it.

Of course, Giuliani had, by the point of that July 25 call, already been pressuring Zelensky to announce an investigation of the Crowdstrike theory, and he would enlist the help of Ambassadors Kurt Volker and Gordon Sondland to press the issue through August and early September.

It hurts the brain to think that Ukraine would eagerly blame themselves for something that Russia did, but that was the demand Trump made of them. Did Trump know it was untrue? Was he asking for something legitimate in his own mind, as Lindsey Graham argues?

I suppose it is possible. But, if so, it makes a better case for his removal from office than if he actually knew what he was asking for was based on lies.  After all, if he’s that gullible and stupid, it’s probably a bigger problem than him just being evil.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com