It’s difficult to decide which of these defenses is the most absurd. But one defense that has emerged in recent weeks as the go-to explanation certainly has the honor of being the most unintentionally damning. The argument, as put forward by Republican officeholders and other supporters of the president, goes like this: Don’t blame Trump for his administration’s appalling handling of the crisis. Rather, it’s all the Democrats’ fault, as their drummed-up impeachment drama distracted the president during the key period during which the government could have ramped up its response to the pandemic.
The intent may be to shift blame, but the argument is actually a concession of Trump’s own failure. While Trump’s defense of his leadership has been erratic, one theme has been the insistence that—despite a great deal of evidence to the contrary—he has handled the crisis excellently. At every stage, he has congratulated himself for a job well done, even insisting that “we altogether have done a very good job” while warning Americans to expect as many as 200,000 deaths from the virus.
Yet, in making their impeachment-distraction defense, his supporters are all of a sudden acknowledging that his performance could have been better. Some are more explicit about that than others: Olsen argued outright that Trump failed to “act ... decisively in February when he had time,” and the aggressively pro-Trump outlet The Federalist published a piece conceding that it was “a fair point” to say that the president had taken his eye off the ball. But even those who focus exclusively on attacking congressional Democrats for not doing enough to counter the pandemic are implicitly admitting that the government could have done more—that its response to the crisis was not, as Trump declared, “10 out of 10.” In pointing to impeachment as a distraction, McConnell can’t also argue that Trump did everything perfectly.
Perhaps understanding the political risks of this particular argument, Trump has equivocated on it. When asked at a press conference whether the impeachment trial had “divert[ed] his attention,” he seemed to give some credence to the idea: “I think I handled it very well, but I guess it probably did [distract me]. I mean, I got impeached. I think, you know, I certainly devoted a little time to thinking about it, right?” But then he swung back, arguing, “I don’t think I would have done any better had I not been impeached. Okay? ... I don’t think I would have acted any differently or I don’t think I would have acted any faster.”
His reticence on the point is understandable. If you’ve been impeached and you have to justify the fact that you’ve been allowed to remain in office, you want to come off as the sort of leader who was not distracted, who “compartmentalized”—as was said of Bill Clinton during his impeachment—not the sort of leader who crumbled under pressure and allowed a global pandemic to kill more Americans than was necessarily fated. What’s more, Trump never acknowledges failure. The call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was perfect. So too was the coronavirus response. To say otherwise, as Trump’s supporters are now doing, is to concede the leader’s imperfection and to make excuses for it—rather than insisting on his infallibility.