I’ve been reading Bob Woodward’s new book Fear, and it got me thinking about competence, and culpability. The book gives us a glimpse into a White House that’s not running with any sort of grand strategy, but is a viper’s nest of incompetence and backstabbing, with various people and factions with agendas working to get Trump’s ear. All of this is being done without any modicum of competence, or grand strategy, and Trump comes across not as a leader, but someone who is easily manipulated. I suspect that this lack of competence will be used as an excuse. The excuses will become that there can’t be collusion if you’re too dumb to know you’re being manipulated. This will be accepted by some, but incompetence is not an excuse.
When you’re driving a car, you accept certain responsibilities that you have to take for the privilege of driving a car on roads with other people. If I end up driving 55 miles per hour in a residential area with a 35 mile per hour speed limit, my ignorance of that speed limit will not prevent me from getting a ticket. Most reasonable people will conclude that as the driver of the car it’s my responsibility to understand the laws that apply to me, and that not being aware of the speed limit isn’t an excuse to break the law.
If you are the CEO of a public company, and your policies cause the company to take actions that are illegal, you are responsible. Your ignorance of the laws you violated is not an excuse for the behavior there either. As the CEO of a public company, you are aware that you have certain responsibilities and legal restrictions that may not apply to other people. Since you have accepted the position, it is your responsibility to understand what legal liabilities you might have, and to behave in a legal manner. If you tell your employees that “You don’t want to know and don’t care how the objectives are achieved”, and reward behavior that could be illegal (like the Enron corporation), then you are liable for those actions.
If you are a mafia boss, and you’re caught on tape saying “Make sure Jimmy disappears”, you will still be prosecuted for murder if Jimmy is found to be murdered. You don’t get to escape culpability because you plead ignorance of Jimmy’s fate, or how Jimmy’s fate came about.
If someone becomes President, there isn’t some sort of outside force that made this happen without any action on your part. You campaigned and lobbied for the position, and in doing so, declared that you think you would be competent in the job. There are lots of laws, responsibilities, and restrictions that lie with the President that don’t apply to normal people. It is President’s job to understand those rules and regulations, at least broadly, and to make sure to hire a competent staff to help you navigate those rules and regulations. If you fail to hire the staff, or ignore them, then your ignorance of those rules and responsibilities is not excuse for violating them. It is your responsibility to obey those rules and regulations, and to not be cavalier about the obligations you have to your country.
All of the above being said, it seems to me that a great part of the arguments from the right, excusing the behavior of President Trump, is framed around the argument that he’s too naive to be responsible. Even the question of collusion is framed around this argument in a way. Whether making a statement on Twitter encouraging the Russians to release information on your opponent and then having that information get released is collusion is irrelevant. If you encourage behavior in your supporters and your staff that is illegal, if you make statements encouraging things that you wish would happen, knowing full well that there’s a reasonable likelihood that your encouragement will make those things happen, makes you culpable. Nonetheless, mark my words, that as information comes out around the illegal behavior of the people around President Trump, his defenders will nonetheless make statements saying that Trump himself didn’t do X, Y, or Z, and so its not him. As a society we don’t accept that excuse in traffic laws, its not something we even debate. I don’t think its worth debating around the actions of the President of the United States either.