Since the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago on Monday, August 8, the MAGA airwaves have been filled with people making excuses for Donald Trump. These excuses have run from the benign (minimizing the allegations) to the ridiculous (suggesting this was an FBI plot to incriminate Trump). Some say more about the people making them than they do about Trump, like a kind of political Rorschach test in which the excuse makers reveal their own legislative fantasies or political agendas.
This week, Republican Senator Rand Paul used the Mar-a-Lago search to call for the repeal of the Espionage Act, the law that makes it illegal to obtain or disclose information related to national defense that could be used against the U.S., or to the benefit of another country, and which was cited in the Mar-a-Lago search warrant released Friday, August 12th. Paul called the act an “egregious affront to the 1st Amendment,” though it’s hard to square anything First Amendment–related with Trump’s possible misdeeds that led to the search. (Paul is also a supporter of Edward Snowden, who was charged in 2013 with violating the very same act Paul wants repealed.)
Conservative talk-show host Charlie Kirk tried a different tack over the weekend, claiming that the Mar-a-Lago search was issued over a “paperwork dispute.” (Allegedly stealing classified documents related to cybersecurity—and possibly even-more-sensitive topics—is a “paperwork dispute” in the way drowning someone is a “water dispute,” but I digress.) A few days earlier, Kirk and Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich also tried to float the idea that Trump was possibly set up by the FBI.
Fox & Friends weekend cohost Will Cain went for a fascinating perversion of history, telling the audience on Sunday, “President Nixon said [that] if the president does it, then it is not illegal. Is that not truly the standard when it comes to classified documents?” The irony here is that Nixon made a huge goof when he used this phrase during his interviews with British journalist David Frost in 1977; when Nixon said, “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal,” he betrayed the above-the-law hubris of his administration, which proved to be one of the greatest gotcha moments in presidential history. So it’s a bit odd that Cain is using Nixon’s moment of admitting presidential overreach as a way to cover for Trump’s lawlessness.
Some of the excuses weren’t even excuses so much as blatant lies. Sean Hannity and Jesse Watters, for instance, complained that the FBI should have just subpoenaed the documents from Trump. “It’s not like Trump won’t cooperate,” Watters said. If only Watters had been patient enough to wait a day, when it was reported that actually the FBI had subpoenaed documents from Trump in the spring, apparently to no avail.
There’s a history here. Whenever it seems like Trump (or someone in Trump’s inner circle, like Donald Trump Jr., who was found by former Department of Justice Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation to be too stupid—Dana Milbank’s word—to collude) might be held accountable, someone comes along and makes an excuse for him. Sources told The New York Times that Trump was too busy (in the Times’ summary of their comments) “settling political grievances and personal grudges” to be focused on returning the documents. Just as a source also blamed former Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, in part, for the documents not being returned—just as, years ago, Trump blamed everyone, from China to U.S. governors, for his complete inability to govern.
But the current streak of excuses, which have been wildly different from each other, is unusual. The MAGA world tends to speak in lockstep. When it doesn’t, it’s because Trump and company have done something so outside the norm, they can’t quite figure out how to cover for him. This period might be most like the days after the Access Hollywood tape was leaked, when Republicans were waiting to see if the base would continue on the Trump train.
Trump’s enablers will continue making excuses for him as long as he continues to have the support of the GOP base. But the frantic running in circles, the inability to stick to a story, and the weird panic in Trumpworld is important to pay attention to. Trump and MAGA figures like Steve Bannon have long used a damage-control strategy of, to quote Bannon, “flood[ing] the zone with shit.” The goal is not to persuade but to confuse and paralyze the public. But while Bannon and his allies were never in doubt about their own goals and values, the GOP now seems to be struggling—and failing—to decide what it believes, and what it can possibly sell to the American public.