The law of Trump's unnecessary innocence

No quid pro quo! The quid pro quo was good!

President Trump.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Win McNamee/Getty Images, Asya_mix/iStock, -slav-/iStock)

The "law of merited impossibility" is a creation of The American Conservative's Rod Dreher, who uses the phrase to describe reassurances from progressives to conservatives that something the latter group fears "will never happen, and when it does, you bigots will deserve it." So, for example, "churches will never lose their tax exemptions for refusing to perform gay weddings, and when they do, they had it coming for being homophobic."

As the impeachment proceedings against President Trump move forward, I'm seeing echoes of Dreher's contradictory construction in a very different context. Many of the president's defenders follow a pattern I'll call the "law of Trump's unnecessary innocence," which says Trump is innocent of whatever he's accused of doing, and when he did it, it was actually wise and positive for himself and/or the country. He didn't do the alleged bad thing, but he did it because it was a good thing to do. How dare you accuse him of this?! He doesn't have to deny it because it was totally the right call.

The most glaring example of this law at work is undoubtedly the rickety defenses raised by acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. The official Trump administration position has been that there was "no quid pro quo" in Trump's decision to withhold military aid from Ukraine. The delay in sending the funds was about corruption in Kyiv and European aid allotment, the Trump camp has insisted, and not an attempt to coerce the Ukrainian government into conducting an investigation (into Hunter Biden and/or a hacked DNC email server) on the president's behalf.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Mulvaney, infamously, didn't manage to stick to that script. "We do that all the time with foreign policy," he said at a press conference in response to a reporter's question characterizing the aid stoppage as a quid pro quo. "I have news for everybody," Mulvaney added a few moments later. "Get over it. There's going to be political influence in foreign policy," and tying aid to "whether or not [Ukraine was] cooperating in an ongoing investigation" is "completely legitimate."

Trying to spin his comments in a follow-up statement and appearance on Fox News Sunday, Mulvaney categorically denied any admission of a quid pro quo — but again insisted "it is legitimate for the president to want to know what's going on with the ongoing investigation into the server." So the notion of a quid pro quo is an invention of the president's enemies attempting to conduct yet another baseless "witch hunt," but when the president made a quid pro quo request, it was "legitimate for the president to do." He didn't do it, but when he did it, it was good!

Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) has likewise claimed the allegations against Trump are "lies" and the impeachment inquiry an "absolute sham" — and that because he is "the most patriotic president ... in many years" who "is going to do what is good for Americans," Trump in pressuring Ukraine "was doing his job, ensuring that if taxpayer dollars are going overseas, we expect them to crack down on corruption at all levels — no matter who someone's daddy is or what their political ambitions are." He didn't do it, and he was right to do it.

The president himself and his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., have made nearly the same pivot about the Ukraine affair, stopping just short of the full, boasting admission to stay in the realm of hypotheticals.

His call with the Ukrainian president had "NO Quid Pro Quo" and "NOTHING wrong with it," the president says. He's innocent of asking for an investigation! But he has also posted numerous tweets alleging corruption by the Bidens and publicly stated Ukraine and China should investigate the Biden family, tiptoeing to the line of quid pro quo before denying that was his intent. An investigation would be good! Trump Jr. similarly insists "the Ukraine charade is a full-blown witch hunt against" his father, but his Twitter account is a steady feed of allegations of the Bidens' corruption.

To be fair, it is possible for the president to sincerely believe an investigation should happen without taking inappropriate steps to make it happen. And maybe that's the truth of the situation. It's certainly the story Trump and Trump Jr. are trying to tell.

But their persistent demand for a probe into the Bidens still smacks of the unnecessary innocence framework. It reads, at least, as a hedging of bets. If it becomes impossible to continue insisting on the president's innocence, the switch to embracing the quid pro quo as a good thing will be smooth.

Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.