The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In battle with Mueller, Trump has a big advantage that Nixon did not

President Trump spoke to reporters on Dec. 17 after special counsel Robert S. Mueller III obtained emails from President Trump’s transition team. (Video: The Washington Post)


What we are seeing right now in the Russia affair is a kind of double game: Fox News and a constellation of President Trump’s outside allies are escalating their attacks on the special counsel and on law enforcement, even as Trump’s lawyers — and Trump himself — keep telling us that Trump has no intention of trying to remove Robert S. Mueller III.

But whatever Trump ends up doing toward Mueller, this double-track approach will take us into new territory. Trump is heading into a period of some sort of sustained confrontation with the special counsel and with law enforcement that is similar to the one Richard Nixon entered into just over four decades ago. Yet Trump will be benefiting from a very powerful and far-reaching network of media propaganda on his behalf — one that casts all these ongoing efforts to subject Trump to basic accountability as fundamentally illegitimate — that is nothing like anything Nixon had at his disposal. And the ramifications of that for our country are, at present, a big unknown.

I ran this idea by Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton who specializes in the political history of the 1960s and 1970s. Zelizer agreed that Trump is set to benefit from a “massive propaganda” effort, “via cable television, via websites, and via Twitter,” that didn’t exist when Nixon targeted the Watergate special prosecutor during his Saturday Night Massacre.

“Whatever Mueller does, Trump’s allies have a huge bully pulpit, where the message from his perspective is constantly circulating, regardless of what the investigators do,” Zelizer told me. “Nixon never had anything comparable to that.”

Zelizer noted that at the time, the media was already in full investigative mode due to the Vietnam War. “It was a media controlled by three networks and a handful of major city papers,” Zelizer said. “The state of the media was adversarial.” The result, Zelizer said, was that once the Saturday Night Massacre came down, “there weren’t many people who wanted to cover it from Nixon’s perspective,” and the story was covered as a “constitutional crisis” brought about by Nixon’s conduct.

This is decidedly different from the current landscape, in which huge numbers of Americans are being fed a dramatically different tale about Trump and the Mueller investigation from the one unfolding in the real world.

Many of President Trump's frequent jabs at the press have the ring of former president Richard Nixon's attacks on the media. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Over the weekend, as CNN’s Brian Stelter recaps, Fox seized on anti-Trump texts sent by a Mueller investigator — which, while newsworthy, are being appropriately handled by Mueller — to launch attacks on federal law enforcement that are truly hallucinatory. We were told by one on-air figure that this is “potentially one of the biggest scandals in American history.” Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway insisted “the fix is in” against Trump, as a Fox chyron blared: “A COUP IN AMERICA?” One Fox personality flatly stated that we now have “smoking gun evidence” of an alleged FBI coup against Trump and the “millions of American voters” who backed him. Fox’s Jeanine Pirro suggested it might be time to drag away Trump’s investigators “in cuffs.”

Stelter correctly notes that this is what Trump, an avid Fox viewer, “is hearing.” Indeed, he’s hearing it daily: We’re seeing a concerted effort to goad Trump into trying to remove Mueller. Yes, Trump and one of his lawyers clarified over the weekend that he has no intention of going that route. But The Post reports that Trump is privately seething at Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein for not exercising enough of a check on the conduct of the special counsel, and some Trump friends and advisers worry he could still try to remove Mueller if he is not exonerated soon.

We don’t know what Trump will do in the end. But today’s vastly different media landscape creates incentives — or at least, the appearance of incentives — for Trump to opt for a course of full-blown autocracy and lawlessness. He is being goaded into such conduct by his media allies. They are feeding his voters a narrative in which removing Mueller is the only truly legitimate outcome on their behalf. He knows that this propaganda network will be there to provide cover for him if he does take this plunge.

Even if Trump does not do that, all this could have untold consequences. We are now seeing some congressional Republicans sound variations of the Fox narrative about Mueller. If Mueller ends up demonstrating conduct that is potentially impeachable, it will be easier for Republicans to wave it away and do nothing by claiming the probe itself was illegitimate. The creation of a vast audience of GOP voters who believe this could make that even more likely. It may already be exerting pressure on some GOP lawmakers to echo the Mueller-is-illegitimate narrative.

“It did take Republicans awhile to go after Nixon,” Zelizer said. But if things similarly come to a head with Trump, Zelizer noted, the Fox media axis will intensify the “pressure on Republicans to be loyal.” The upshot, Zelizer concluded, is that Nixon only benefited from “standard party loyalty. But this is a whole other beast.” And we have no idea how much damage this beast will do.

* TRUMP ALLIES WORRY ABOUT ‘MELTDOWN’ OVER MUELLER: CNN reports that Trump’s legal team has told him he’ll probably be cleared in the next few months of wrongdoing by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. But:

That optimism has left some of the President’s friends and advisers worried the deadline could come and go, leaving Trump frustrated and more prone to rash behavior than ever before, including potentially firing Mueller. … Three sources familiar with the President’s recent conversations about the investigation said Trump has become convinced that he will receive a letter of exoneration, which would be unusual. One source worried Trump would have a “meltdown” if that doesn’t happen.

By the way, Trump has entertained trying to remove Mueller before. The fact that his own friends and advisers see it as a real possibility perhaps suggests we should prepare for the worst.

* PATH TO WINNING HOUSE RUNS THROUGH SUBURBS: The New York Times reports that strategists in both parties believe Democrats can win the House by taking suburban districts:

Perhaps two dozen red-hued districts with significant suburban populations could be winnable for Democrats in a banner year … Should that climate worsen, Republicans say, lawmakers not previously thought to be at risk could be endangered …. What alarms Republicans is that charges of sexual misconduct … are engulfing lawmakers and are bound to lead to more resignations, more special elections and a further galvanizing of female voters.

One big question is whether the worsening climate will allow Democrats to win GOP-held districts that are heavy on working-class whites.

* TAX PLAN COULD BE A POLITICAL GIFT TO DEMOCRATS: The Wall Street Journal notes that the GOP tax plan’s permanent corporate tax cuts combined with expiring benefits for the poor and middle class could give Democrats political ammunition for years:

That means every campaign until Dec. 31, 2025, can be fought over the tax legislation … “We will emphasize the fact that Republicans made the big corporate tax cuts permanent, while tax cuts for middle-class families are small and temporary, and that’s for families that aren’t seeing an increase,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D., Md.), who heads Senate Democrats’ campaign arm.

But Republicans keep telling us that passing this bill is their only hope in the midterms, because they need to tell the base that they accomplished something, never mind the details.

* TRUMP WINS BIGLY FROM TAX BILL: Jesse Drucker and Alan Rappeport explain why Trump and his family will emerge as such big winners if the GOP tax bill passes:

Mr. Trump, along with his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is part owner of his own real estate firm, will benefit from lower taxes on so-called “pass through” income … Mr. Trump and Mr. Kushner benefit since they own properties through limited liability companies and other similar vehicles. … At the last minute, lawmakers added language to make it easier for real estate owners to avoid some of the pass-through provision’s restrictions and maximize the tax benefits even more.

Remember how Trump campaigned on the idea that he enriched himself by gaming the system, but would now put his insider knowledge of the scam to work for America?

* GOP TAX PLAN IS ‘CORRUPTION’: E.J. Dionne Jr. makes a strong case that the tax bill should be understood as “deeply corrupt,” in the sensec that it is a money grab by the rich that is being sold with endless lies:

The shamelessness of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s description of the bill on CNN Sunday as “a very large tax cut for working families” is quite staggering. Consider that this confection of loopholes gives lawyers at big firms many paths to lower taxes but not much to the people who clean their offices.  … The key to corruption is operating in the dark. This bill is a mess of opaque provisions that almost no one outside the ranks of tax lobbyists understands — because many of these giveaways were written or inspired by lobbyists themselves.

If the GOP plan was anything like what the White House and Republicans claim, why would they be acting as they are?

* TAX PLAN EXACERBATES TERRIBLE TRENDS: David Leonhardt points out that the GOP tax plan is particularly awful given two trends: widening income inequality and the decline of progressivity in the tax code. The rich have already benefited most from tax cuts in recent decades:

The great tax-cutting revolution of the last half-century hasn’t actually been a tax-cutting revolution for most Americans. … middle-class and poor families … now face higher total tax rates than a half-century ago. … wealthy households … are bringing home many more dollars, and each of those dollars is being taxed less than in the past. The middle class and poor are on the unhappy end of both trends.

On top of all that, the past few decades have already shown us that the justification for the distribution of the latest cuts — that they will explode growth and wages — is nonsense.

* TRUMP RAGES ABOUT GOP LOSSES: Good morning, Mr. President. Worried about the midterm elections, are we?

In reality, Trump gave a ringing endorsement to both Ed Gillespie and Roy Moore, and cast the Democrats who beat them as enemies of the Trump agenda.