‘Hunter Biden’s Laptop’ Is Not a Rational Defense of Trump at This Moment

4 minute read

This article is part of The D.C. Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox.

To look in some corners of the conservative movement this week has been like visiting an alternative universe, one in which a politicized FBI and Justice Department have become hellbent on unfairly persecuting former President Donald Trump after turning a blind eye to Hunter Biden’s laptop and Hillary Clinton’s missing emails.

Federal officers on Monday executed a search warrant on Trump’s Florida home, one that was approved by the Justice Department and a judge based on probable cause that evidence of a crime was parked at Mar-a-Lago. It appears the inquiry is linked to Trump’s handling of classified materials; agents took about a dozen boxes with them from the West Palm Beach members-only club late Monday, according to Trump’s lawyer.

But rather than debate the merits of the case as they are known so far, some Trump allies seized on the highly unusual—but not unheard of—nature of a presidential administration probing the conduct of the previous commander in chief. In quick turn, many decided a galling double standard was at play, given how the FBI investigated—and cleared—Clinton for how she handled her email system as Secretary of State, and how the probe facing Hunter Biden, the President’s son and the potential subject of a tax case, is seemingly progressing at a glacial pace.

Even Trump’s potential challengers for his party’s presidential nomination in 2024 joined the effort to cast him as a victim, his supporters as aggrieved, and the Biden administration of holding one standard to protect its friends and another to dispatch any threats to Joe Biden’s nascent re-election bid. “The raid of MAL is another escalation in the weaponization of federal agencies against the Regime’s political opponents, while people like Hunter Biden get treated with kid gloves,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis tweeted about the visit of feds to Mar-a-Lago. Added former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: “Look at what the DOJ did last night to President Trump, while it slow-rolls and looks the other way on Hunter Biden.”

The Trump orbit didn’t invent this sort of misdirection but it did hone it in significant ways. The power of whataboutism was on full display during the Cold War, as the Soviets would invoke unrelated American sins to answer for brutal policy enforced from Moscow. Whataboutism memos line the State Department’s archive from that era, including perhaps the most famous—and accurate—rejoiner from Russian diplomats: “But you lynch Negroes.” To this day, Putin deploys his own variations to argue his country’s conduct is on the level with Washington’s.

Rhetorically, it’s tough to arrive at an honest answer because the whataboutism redirects that conversation away from substance and toward flair. With a limited knowledge of the facts and applicable laws, there’s no real way to determine the criminality of someone like Trump or Hunter Biden, neither of whom have been charged. Meanwhile, Clinton was cleared by some of her toughest critics, so invoking her is a Pavlovian trigger for conservatives intended to spike their blood pressure. The Whataboutists don’t much care about the real answer. They’re just trying to misdirect.

Which may end up working. The facts as they’re understood so far spell potential trouble for Trump. If he did abscond with classified material in his last days in the White House, that’s pretty clearly against the law. As President, he could declassify anything at any time, so it could be argued that he was protected, but he lost those powers at noon on Jan. 20, 2021. And, even though he’s all but ready to launch a 2024 comeback, he still is not above the law.

That’s why Republicans’ fealty to his line of victimhood and claims of persecution is as ill-considered as it is inconsistent. A feature at every Trump rally for years has been the chant of “lock her up” over Clinton’s email system, which was in keeping with her predecessors’ practices and State Department rules. Suddenly, that profession of law and order’s supremacy is a forgotten footnote, a reminder of just how short a GOP memory can be when new facts render older ones inconvenient.

Make sense of what matters in Washington. Sign up for the D.C. Brief newsletter

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com