The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How Republicans are immunizing their voters against whatever Mueller uncovers

(Richard Drew/Associated Press)
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The Republican Party is getting very nervous about Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s potential collusion with Russia and possible crimes associated with it, as well it should. So many Republicans — and their allies in the conservative media — seem to have arrived at a strategy: Launch an all-out PR assault on the entire investigation, utilizing every available megaphone at their disposal.

You might ask, how is that going to help? Mueller has all the authority and resources he needs, and he isn’t going to be intimidated by a bunch of bloviating congressmen or a hundred shouting segments on Fox News. President Trump could fire him, but that won’t be easy, and could precipitate a real constitutional crisis.

Yet even if Trump doesn’t fire Mueller, the strategy could still achieve another critical goal, which is to shape public opinion. Republicans would love to stop Mueller, but short of that they’re trying to immunize the public — or half of it, anyway — against him.

It’s coming from Republican members of Congress, who are taking every available opportunity to rail against Mueller and the FBI. Most especially, it’s coming from the conservative media, nowhere more than on Fox News. As Brian Stelter observes, Fox has practically become all-Mueller, all the time:

The repetition is really something to behold — not just by hosts but by guests who back up the anti-Mueller arguments. “There needs to be an investigation of the investigation,” Mike Huckabee, father of White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, said on “Fox & Friends” on Monday.
The next night, on Fox Business, fervently pro-Trump host Lou Dobbs tried to outdo his colleagues. He said [FBI official Peter] Strzok, Mueller and former FBI director James Comey “should be the subjects of criminal investigations and held fully accountable for crimes against a sitting president and the voters who supported him.”
Dobbs added, “Just one man’s opinion.”
Later that evening, Hannity’s opinion was that Mueller is the “head of the snake.” He called the special counsel a “disgrace to the American justice system” and asserted that the country is “now on the brink of becoming a banana republic.”

The president watches many of these programs obsessively, and according to news reports regularly calls Sean Hannity after his show to consult on the day’s events. So there’s no question that his own sense of grievance and oppression will be fed by what he watches every day, which could make it far more likely that he moves to fire Mueller. And as this blog has pointed out, it appears these media figures are actively trying to goad Trump into doing that.

But even if he doesn’t, the strategy can still have a critical impact on the ultimate outcome of the Russia scandal.

Republican lawmakers and Fox News question the integrity of the FBI, as special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe intensifies. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

The Republican approach has its roots in an insight that Mitch McConnell brought to the GOP’s strategy in opposing Barack Obama. On major legislation like the Affordable Care Act, McConnell worked hard to make sure not a single Republican joined with Democrats, as much to create a public impression about the enterprise as to actually defeat it. As McConnell explained to the New York Times in 2010:

“It was absolutely critical that everybody be together because if the proponents of the bill were able to say it was bipartisan, it tended to convey to the public that this is O.K., they must have figured it out,’ Mr. McConnell said about the health legislation in an interview, suggesting that even minimal Republican support could sway the public.”

As long as both parties were opposed to one another, it just looked like partisan bickering to voters who had only the barest understanding of the legislation.

There’s a similar logic at work today. The public isn’t going to follow all the twists and turns of the Russia scandal and know the entire cast of characters; I’d be surprised if 20 percent of Americans could tell you who Michael Flynn is, let alone George Papadopoulos or Sergey Kislyak. But if they can be convinced that the whole thing is just partisan, then they don’t have to know. Republicans will follow their natural inclination to line up behind their party, insulating Trump and his administration from any kind of accountability.

How do you create that impression? You argue not just that it’s a witch hunt but that it’s a partisan witch hunt, done for no purpose other than partisan advantage. So what if the FBI is full of Republicans, or if Mueller himself is a Republican of unimpeachable law-enforcement credentials, or if his team of investigators and prosecutors includes both Republicans and Democrats? If you can find, say, an agent working on the case who criticized Trump in a private text message, and was removed lest the investigation be tainted in any way, that’s all the hook you need to shout that the whole thing is a Democratic operation:

Want more? Here’s a bit of the intro to Sean Hannity’s show


Also tonight, we have new big breaking information about the Special Counsel, Robert Mueller’s partisan, extremely biased, hyper-partisan attack team. We will going to name names tonight and explain exactly who these Trump hating investigators really are and why this entire witch-hunt needs to be shut down and shut down immediately. What is beyond clear tonight is that Robert Mueller has assembled the most partisan Special Counsel in history.

A “partisan, extremely biased, hyper-partisan attack team”! Jeez, I don’t know, that sounds pretty partisan.

Unless and until Trump fires Mueller, none of this will have any immediate practical effect on the probe. Mueller is doing his work, gathering information and handing down indictments. Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh can’t stop him. They can’t keep him from sending some Trump associates to prison. But what they can do is affect what happens when he’s done.

Once Mueller issues his final report, the country and its representatives in Congress will have to decide what to do about it. If all Republicans have been convinced that nothing Mueller uncovers need be considered seriously or even believed, then it could well get Trump off the hook. Republicans in Congress won’t feel pressure to follow up with further investigations, let alone impeach the president. And while it will still be a huge scandal, it won’t be the kind of bipartisan scandal that can bring down a president.

Until 2020, that is.