Commentary: The president who isn’t a student

By John Krull 

INDIANAPOLIS – The late Richard Lugar once delivered what was, for him, a blistering condemnation of President Donald Trump.

“This president is not a student,” Lugar once told me.

John Krull, publisher,

For Lugar, who never said an unkind word, there was no greater criticism. A Rhodes Scholar and a lifelong student, the former Republican senator from Indiana and foreign-policy expert never stopped striving to learn more about the world.

But he was right about this president.

Donald Trump is not a student.

And that is costing both his presidency and this country a great deal.

The drama surrounding Attorney General William Barr’s testimony before the U.S. Senate and his refusal to testify before the U.S. House of Representatives demonstrates that.

Barr’s testimony before the Senate was – let’s be charitable – less than forthright. When it wasn’t combative, it was evasive or defensive.

Barr’s goal, it was clear, was not to get at the truth, but to defend the president at all costs. While that may be a posture that is defensible or even admirable for Donald Trump’s personal attorney, it isn’t for someone who is supposed to be the nation’s lawyer.

The attorney general is supposed to stand with and help the president in implementing public policy goals, but not in defending the chief executive against charges of personal or criminal misconduct.

The question is why Barr opted to destroy his reputation and undermine the integrity and independence of his office to act as a human shield for the president. Did Barr decide to do so on his own? Did Trump ask him to? Did Trump order him to?

I’ve read the redacted version of Special Counsel Robert Mueller III.

It’s a disturbing document, filled with evidence of chicanery and corrupt behavior on the part of the president and his team.

But, unless stupidity becomes a felony, the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russian officials and agents don’t amount to a case for impeachment. The president’s minions were dupes of the Russians, not partners. They weren’t players. They got played.

But this is where the president’s refusal to study – or to let anyone around him do so – matters.

Looking into the history of Watergate would be instructive.

If there was one overarching lesson from that episode, it was that the cover-up, rather than the initial crime, proved deadly.

The conventional wisdom now is that there is no parallel to Watergate in this current saga.

The thinking goes that the Republicans in Congress now, because they’re devoted to or cowed by Trump, are more determined to stand with this president than the GOP of the 1970s was to link arms with Richard Nixon. And Donald Trump is supposed to be more vindictive than Nixon.

The fact, though, is that Republicans 45 years ago stood with Nixon for as long as they could. Once they became convinced he was dragging them to ruin, they threw him overboard. Pressuring him to resign was at least as much a political calculation as it was a defense of political morality.

The notion that Nixon was a kinder, gentler chief executive than Trump also is false.

Richard Nixon was not renowned for turning the other cheek. In office, he used the Internal Revenue Service to harass political opponents. He planted damaging, often false, stories about them in the press. His people burgled the offices of doctors to steal psychiatric files of people he disliked so he could either embarrass or blackmail them.

Just like Donald Trump, Richard Nixon could be meaner than a snake when crossed.

And he may have been more dangerous, because he was smarter than Trump is.

And yet he fell, even after he won a presidential election carrying 49 of the 50 states and capturing more than 60 percent of the popular vote.

There’s a lesson here.

But that’s if one is a student.

And this president, as Richard Lugar noted, isn’t a student.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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