OPINION: Why Ryan's 'ignorance' excuse for Trump won't wash
© Greg Nash

Speaker of the House Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanEarmarks look to be making a comeback Former staffers push Congress for action on sexual harassment measure House Republicans need history lesson in battle over next leader MORE (R-Wisc.) put forth an excuse for President Trump’s efforts to influence the FBI’s investigation into possible collusion between the Trump team and Russia’s efforts to manipulate America’s presidential election. Ryan did not dispute the factual content of former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony under oath before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Rather, he claimed that Trump was too new to politics to understand that what he was doing was wrong.

“He’s new at government, so therefore I think he’s learning as he goes,” Ryan said. “And you now know why he’s frustrated, because he was told [by Comey] ‘nothing is wrong here’ and he wants to get things done for the American people.”


This is an extraordinary claim coming from the leader of the party of “personal responsibility.” It’s not a grace that Republicans would ordinarily grant to persons accused of wrongdoing. But leaving the double-standard aside, Ryan’s excuse for Trump is a textbook example of a convenient theory destroyed by inconvenient facts.


Trump may be a first-time officeholder, but he is no newcomer to politics and government as his 40-plus years of involvement as a contributor and lobbyist demonstrate. Trump built his business empire on tax breaks and concessions the he wrested from local governments. In a July 2015 interview with the Wall Street Journal, he bragged, “As a businessman and a very substantial donor to very important people, when you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do.”

But there is direct evidence that Trump knew full well that his communications with Comey were dead wrong. In June 2016, amid an FBI investigation of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonOvernight Defense — Presented by Raytheon — First lady's office pushes for ouster of national security aide | Trump taps retired general as ambassador to Saudis | Mattis to visit border troops | Record number of female veterans to serve in Congress Election Countdown: Lawsuits fly in Florida recount fight | Nelson pushes to extend deadline | Judge says Georgia county violated Civil Rights Act | Biden, Sanders lead 2020 Dem field in poll | Bloomberg to decide on 2020 by February What midterm exit polls tell us about 2020 MORE’s use of private email server while she was secretary of state, Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Sponsored by Delta Air Lines — Amazon picks NYC, Northern Virginia for new offices | CNN suing Trump over Acosta press pass | Pelosi machine lobbies for Speakership Lewinsky: Bill Clinton should want to apologize Lewinsky participated in Clinton series so what happened to her 'never happens to another young person in our country again' MORE met with then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch on an airport tarmac in Phoenix. It is not known whether the two discussed the investigation and Bill Clinton was not at the time imbued with the power and majesty of a sitting president of the United States.

The response by Trump and his supporters to reports of this meeting proves that he knew that even the appearance of an effort to interfere  with an ongoing FBI investigation was dead wrong. “I think it’s so terrible. I think it’s so horrible. I think it’s the biggest story, one of the big stories of this week, of this month, of this year,” Trump said. “Even in terms of judgment, how bad a judgment is it for him or for her to do this? I mean, who would do this?” He added, “I’m just flabbergasted by it. I think it’s amazing. I’ve never seen anything like that before.”

Trump’s surrogate John CornynJohn CornynThis week: Congress starts lame-duck with leadership fight Senate GOP readies for leadership reshuffle Congress braces for high-drama lame duck MORE, a three-term Republican senator from Texas, and a former attorney general of the state, was equally emphatic, tweeting, “Lynch & Clinton: Conflict of interest? An attorney cannot represent two parties in a dispute and must avoid even the appearance of conflict.”

Trump ally and commentator Laura Ingraham said on Fox News, “There is a brazen effort to undermine U.S. law and at the very least the appearance of impropriety and ethical considerations, which you and I know, as lawyers, people take very seriously.” The last thing we needed she said, was a “further undermining of the objectivity of this investigation.” It is well established Trump closely follows Fox News.

Special counsel Robert Mueller and the U.S. House of Representatives, respectively, must decide whether Trump’s conduct amounts to an indictable obstruction of justice or an abuse of presidential power that constitutes an impeachable offense. Neither Mueller nor Congress should take seriously Ryan’s claim that Trump was so naive or inexperienced that he didn’t know that it was wrong to pressure an FBI director to pledge personal loyalty to him or to drop an ongoing investigation.

Allan J. Lichtman, PhD, is a distinguished professor of history at American University. He is the author of The Case for Impeachment (Dey Street Books, 2017).

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.