WASHINGTON • Even as former FBI director James Comey held the political world in thrall from inside a packed Senate hearing room, the Speaker of the House Paul Ryan was already joining an effort under way among Republican lawmakers to place the hearing in the best possible light for US President Donald Trump.
"Of course, there needs to be a degree of independence" between federal law enforcement and the White House, Mr Ryan said.
But he added: "The President's new at this. He is new to government, and so he probably wasn't steeped in the long-running protocols that establish the relationships between (the Justice Department), FBI and White House."
Mr Ryan later made it clear that he was "not saying it is an acceptable excuse" and that his remark was "just my observation". But he was one of many GOP lawmakers willing to minimise Mr Trump's alleged meddling and demands for loyalty as the fumblings of a political tyro - or the behaviour of a real estate mogul accustomed to having his orders followed.
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"It has to still be legal and right and all that, but I think a lot of it is - he is used to being the CEO," Mr Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, an early Trump endorser, said on Wednesday after Mr Comey's statement was published.
While playing up Mr Trump's naivete is currently one strain of his political defence, legal analysts said it could also be a kernel of a criminal defence. To substantiate an obstruction of justice case under criminal law, a prosecutor has to prove a person acted corruptly - and if Mr Trump was merely acting foolishly, he would be legally okay. "It is just another way of saying that maybe he had innocent intent, just didn't appreciate how inappropriate or wrongful it would appear to people who have been around law enforcement," said Mr Kelly Kramer, a white-collar criminal defence attorney.
But some analysts said the defence could ring hollow, particularly given that according to Mr Comey, Mr Trump isolated him before making the request about former national security adviser Michael Flynn by ordering everyone else out of the Oval Office.
At least one lawmaker said ignorance of the law and Washington norms is not an excuse. "That is why you have a chief of staff. That is why you have legal counsel," said Mr Mark Sanford of South Carolina.