The key bit begins at 10:30 below when a reporter asks whether a Republican House wouldn’t be trying to impeach a Democratic president who was guilty of the same impropriety and Ryan tries to pretend that the answer isn’t “of course.”
This is a shrewd yet cynical (or cynical yet shrewd) defense in that it uses the public’s low expectations for Trump in his favor. Since he came down the escalator two years ago, he’s gotten away with saying things that would have ruined any professional politician precisely because he’s not a politician. You can’t hold him to the polished standards of the average D.C. phony. He’s too real. Same here. You can’t expect someone who’s in public office for the first time to know on day one that it’s improper to ask the director of the FBI to go easy on his friend — or, I guess, to care enough about the subject to acquaint himself with the ethics of the president/DOJ relationship at any point between June 2015 and January 2017. “What you’re seeing is a president who is now very publicly learning about the way people react to what he considers to be normal New York City conversation,” said Chris Christie yesterday. He’s not corrupt, he’s just learning on the job. Deep down, he’s an average guy just like us.
Yet somehow he knew enough to ask Jeff Sessions and Jared Kushner to leave the room before broaching the subject of the Flynn investigation with Comey. Why would he do that if he thought “normal New York City conversation” was appropriate? As I understand Ryan, he’s not claiming that Trump mistakenly believed it was appropriate. He’s allowing that Trump may have been behaving knowingly inappropriately, but that’s how people roll in the private sector. You can’t expect someone who’s used to petty corruption in the normal course of business to clean up overnight just because he’s the president now.
The problem with this argument (well, one of the problems) is that there’s no limiting principle to it. You could use it to dismiss business conflicts of interest too: The president’s new to this, he doesn’t understand that public officials are held to a higher standard, we mustn’t assume corruption when mere inexperience offers an explanation. In theory, at some point deep into Trump’s presidency that excuse will become less effective, just like at some point Obama couldn’t blame “the Bush economy” for sluggish growth. But that point can be a lo-o-ong time in coming. And Trump’s own staff likes this excuse too much to relinquish it any time soon. WaPo blogger Dan Drezner has an extended running thread going on Twitter flagging all the times White House aides have described interacting with Trump as akin to managing an unruly kid with ADHD than consulting with an adult. Their point is the same as Ryan’s at base: You can’t hold the president to the same standard as you would other politicians. He’s different. He’s still a growing boy.
Depending upon how bad the Russiagate revelations get, we may yet reach the point where the official party line is “he’s not corrupt, he’s just not that bright.” Probably not until his second term, though.
Update: Ryan’s office emails to point out that he agreed last night that the “loyalty” request was “inappropriate” and said in the clip below that Trump’s inexperience isn’t an excuse. It … is sort of being offered as an excuse, though. For other politicians this would be a mortal sin. Ryan’s presenting it as a venial sin for Trump.