As Donald Trump gets dragged deeper, and deeper, and deeper into his Ukraine scandal and the impeachment inquiry accelerates toward a likely House vote before the year’s end, the president is increasingly insistent that, if he wanted to commit a crime, he wouldn’t be stupid enough to get caught.
At other times, Trump has privately avowed that if he wanted to commit the crimes or outrageous actions he’s accused of, he’d be smart enough to do it—and that people should stop saying he’s too dumb or incompetent to do crimes.
Last week, the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal launched a novel defense of Trump, who Democratic lawmakers allege—as Capitol Hill testimony from senior administration officials suggests—attempted to force the Ukrainian government to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a top political rival of Trump’s, in exchange for military aid that was being held up. The newspaper’s esteemed board argued that any talk of impeaching Trump is silly, in large part, because this president is likely too bumbling to execute that kind of scandalous quid pro quo.
“Intriguingly, Mr. [Bill] Taylor says in his statement that many people in the administration opposed the [Rudy] Giuliani effort, including some in senior positions at the White House,” the editorial board wrote. “This matters because it may turn out that while Mr. Trump wanted a quid-pro-quo policy ultimatum toward Ukraine, he was too inept to execute it. Impeachment for incompetence would disqualify most of the government, and most presidents at some point or another in office.”
Trump, a routine morning reader and skimmer of several newspapers’ print editions, saw this editorial—which was obviously meant to defend him—last week. And the president promptly began complaining about it to some of those close to him.
“[The president] mentioned he had seen it and then he started saying things like, ‘What are they talking about, if I wanted to do quid pro quo, I would’ve done the damn quid pro quo,’ and… then defended his intelligence and then talked about how ‘perfect’ the call [with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky] was,” said a source familiar with Trump’s reaction to the Journal editorial. Another person familiar with the president’s comments on the matter corroborated the account.
“He was clearly unhappy. He did not like the word ‘inept,’” the first source added.
The president’s negative response to the Journal editorial board’s musings mirrors his thinking on his now-infamous Zelensky phone call, which helped trigger the whistleblower complaint that led to the impeachment probe: He couldn’t have perpetrated an impeachable offense because he isn’t enough of an imbecile to get caught red-handed.
“How many more Never Trumpers will be allowed to testify about a perfectly appropriate phone call when all anyone has to do is READ THE TRANSCRIPT! I knew people were listening in on the call (why would I say something inappropriate?), which was fine with me, but why so many?” Trump posted to Twitter on Tuesday morning.
The president has tweeted statements to that effect several times. He also has publicly stressed to reporters, over and over again, that he knew others were listening in on his July conversation with Zelensky, and therefore he wasn’t going to try anything sketchy.
Trump has long been highly sensitive to any jabs, real or perceived, at his level of intelligence or competence. In July, for instance, he tweeted that he is “smart,” a “true Stable Genius!” and also “so great looking.”
Senior officials working in Trump’s West Wing are also often tasked with defending the president’s alleged brain power.
Over the weekend, Trump’s former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said at a conference hosted by the Washington Examiner that he told the president not to “hire a ‘yes man,’ someone who won’t tell you the truth… because if you do, I believe you will be impeached.” Kelly also said he regretted departing the administration and claimed he could have acted as a moderating force on Trump, thus forestalling the Democrats’ impeachment drive.
On Saturday, after Kelly’s comments began making the rounds, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham quickly returned fire, saying in a statement to CNN, “I worked with John Kelly, and he was totally unequipped to handle the genius of our great President.”
Trump then issued his own statement, accusing his former senior aide of simply wanting to be a big shot once again. “John Kelly never said that, he never said anything like that,” the president said. “If he would have said that I would have thrown him out of the office. He just wants to come back into the action like everybody else does.”