The sweet spot for Donald Trump’s allies has always been when they can justify his abuses and crimes through misdirected comparisons rather than direct defense. Did Trump extort Ukraine into smearing his opponent? Well, Ted Kennedy once did something kind of like this. Did Trump try to stay in office after losing the election? Maybe so, but let us tell you about the time a Democrat registered an objection to the Electoral College count in Congress.
The key aspect of these arguments is exaggeration, not fabrication. They seize on real events, often genuinely bad things done by other politicians, then use them as pretext to dismiss actions by Trump of a vastly greater order of magnitude.
As many people have very neutrally pointed out, the news that President Biden held on to classified documents is pure manna for Trump’s defenders. It gives them a set of facts to work with that, if examined without any of the important context, can be spun to the willfully credulous as evidence that these men have committed similar crimes.
“There’s no good case for putting a President in prison — much less making two Presidents into cellmates — for improperly retaining materials from recent public office,” intones The Wall Street Journal. “When Mr. Trump was out on a limb by himself, this point was less obvious to some of our media competitors. Now that Mr. Biden faces a similar inquiry, perhaps they see how ridiculous it is.”
But Trump is not potentially facing charges because he improperly took classified documents. It’s because when the government found out about the documents, he refused to give them back and — allegedly — took steps to hide them from the FBI. This is not a small twist on the same crime. It is the crime.
You might say, in Trump’s defense, that he had no underlying motive to hold on to the documents — that is, they didn’t contain any national-security secrets he planned to sell or incriminating information he wished to hoard. That is probably true. The motive instead seems to be that Trump does not believe the law applies to him.
This is how he has operated for his entire career. He cheats, lies, and steals in the expectation that he can brazen out any consequences. He can simply refuse to let Black people rent an apartment or pay contractors what he promised them or lie to his lenders about his worth, and whatever cost he faces will be worth it. The reason his document theft rose to the level of a federal crime was that he applied this method to behavior that is covered by the federal criminal code and handled by prosecutors he can’t necessarily bully or bribe into submission.
When Trump’s allies moan about his supposedly unfair treatment, the distinction is hiding in plain sight of their complaints. “Where’s the raid? Where’s the pictures of the classified documents? Where’s the special counsel?” demands Jim Jordan.
“Why hasn’t the FBI raided Joe Biden’s home?” asks Dan Crenshaw.
The obvious answer is that Biden didn’t refuse to give back the documents. Indeed, his lawyers volunteered that they had the documents and turned them over immediately. There was nothing to raid.
If Trump’s lawyers had informed the National Archives that he’d mistakenly taken classified documents, or even if they had responded to requests from the archives by turning them over, the FBI never would have been involved. The documents themselves would never have become a criminal matter if Trump had complied with the law. It became one because he flagrantly refused to follow the law, which happened because Trump is a criminal.
The whole thrust of Trumpist propaganda has been to act as though normal politicians making normal blunders are criminals in order to justify handing the presidency to a lifelong crook. Trump is not a smart man but shrewd enough to comprehend that his party is fully invested in a narrative of Democratic evil that compels them to deem anything he’s done, however wrong or illegal, as no different than the actions of any other powerful man. If Trump shot somebody on Fifth Avenue, Republicans would just start talking about Dick Cheney’s hunting accident.