A reporter asked President Donald Trump this week what he thought of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s claim that impeachment distracted Trump from tackling the coronavirus epidemic earlier.
The president gave a rambling answer but ultimately settled on a firm no.
“I don’t think I would have done better had I not been impeached, OK?” Trump said. “And I think that’s a great tribute to something. Maybe it’s a tribute to me. But I don’t think I would’ve acted any differently or I don’t think I would’ve acted any faster.”
Trump’s response threw cold water on what was becoming a common talking point on the right. A week earlier, Henry Olsen, a very Trump-sympathetic columnist for the Washington Post, had written a column headlined, “Let’s be honest. Impeachment hurt Trump’s response to coronavirus.” As China was locking down its cities, Olsen argued, “the White House was focused on addressing this threat to its survival, not on preparing for a threat from China that might never even materialize.”
Other conservatives, including my friends and former National Review colleagues Rich Lowry and Dan McLaughlin, made similar arguments. They emphasized how fortunate we are, in retrospect, that Republicans refused to allow witnesses at the trial, or the distraction might have lasted well into February.
As a matter of analysis, this argument is plausible, perhaps even probable. As Trump repeatedly reminds us, he made a tough and controversial decision to curtail travel from China early on. That was the right thing to do. But it was only a wise decision because it bought us time to marshal resources to fight the inevitable outbreak here in the states. Then, the administration didn’t use that time wisely and failed to adequately prepare.
Consider that both South Korea and the U.S. recorded their first confirmed case on Jan. 20. South Korea immediately went into overdrive with testing, social distancing and contact tracing. The U.S. did not. The fact that South Korea has the pandemic under relative control and the U.S. doesn’t speaks volumes.
But the White House insists that the president always took the threat seriously.
“I don’t believe the president has ever belittled the threat of the coronavirus,” Vice President Mike Pence said this week, despite countless examples of the president belittling the threat of the coronavirus.
Politically, it’s smart for McConnell to blame impeachment. He’s chiefly interested in his own re-election and protecting the Republican majority in the Senate. But Trump’s calculation is different. Both psychologically and politically, he thinks admitting error is a profound mistake. Admitting he took his eye off the ball because of impeachment might not go over well with the voters outside his base he needs to get reelected. Hence the talking point that he’s done everything right from day one.
My problem with the pin-it-on-impeachment argument is twofold. First, it confuses the difference between an explanation and an excuse. If I tell you that I robbed a liquor store because I wanted the money to buy a new car, that’s an explanation, not an excuse. If I did it because kidnappers threatened to harm my family, that’s an excuse.
For people who think there was no merit whatsoever to the impeachment of Trump, and that whatever mistakes he made in his response to the coronavirus were because of it, blaming the Democrats makes some sense.
But that raises my second objection. Whether or not you think the president should have been impeached or removed, Trump is not simply a victim. As Ramesh Ponnuru (also of National Review) notes, this attempt to shift the blame “implicitly treats Democratic behavior as the variable and Republican behavior as the constant.”
Some Democrats have always wanted to impeach Trump simply because they can’t stand him. But others — most importantly House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — resisted such efforts by the bomb-throwers. Then, Trump did something — chiefly, he pressured Ukraine to muddy up Joe Biden — and that changed the equation.
If impeaching the president is a bad idea because it might distract him from a crisis like the one we’re now in, behaving in a way that might invite impeachment is a bad idea, too.
In other words, there are no constants here. All the players are dependent variables playing off each other.
So many of the arguments marshaled to defend Trump take it as a given that he can’t change, so everyone else should accommodate him, and if they don’t, they’re to blame for his irrational response. He’s like the cantankerous uncle who comes to Thanksgiving dinner. He won’t change, so there’s no point in getting mad at his behavior. Instead, you get mad at the nephew who sets him off: “You should have known better!”
Maybe that’s true of the nephew, but it’s no less true of the uncle.
Jonah Goldberg is an editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He’s at JonahsColumn@aol.com.