If Mueller’s investigation exonerated Trump, you would think the best strategy for Trump’s allies would be to simply sit back while Mueller describes his findings in as detailed and unvarnished way as possible. Oddly enough, that’s not what they’re planning on doing.
The monumental absurdity at the core of this disconnect is the reason this strategy is likely to backfire on Trump. Yet, at the same time, the very existence of this strategy, despite its obvious ridiculousness, opens a window on how the Trump propaganda network wields disinformation, and how in certain respects, it does serve his ends.
The Republicans developing this strategy explained it in multiple interviews with Politico. They include Trump’s most determined bodyguards against scrutiny and accountability on Capitol Hill, such as Reps. Jim Jordan (Ohio) and Matt Gaetz (Fla.).
These modern-day Clarence Darrows intend to ruthlessly expose “that Mueller’s team was biased against the president from the start and that the Russia investigation was tainted by inappropriate surveillance,” as Politico puts it.
Some of these lines of attack are matters Republicans have already obsessed over endlessly. They will try again to reveal that early surveillance warrants were improperly obtained. So far, those efforts have ended up producing nothing more than buffoonish pratfalls such as the comically ill-fated “Nunes memo.”
But Republicans are also set to target Mueller with an attack that appears relatively new. I’ll let Jordan explain:
“The obvious question is the one that everyone in the country wants to know: when did you first know there was no conspiracy, coordination or collusion?” said Jordan, one of the Republicans’ fiercest investigators. “How much longer did it take Bob Mueller to figure that out? Did he intentionally wait until after 2018 midterms, or what?”
This is extraordinary. Mueller did not conclude that there was “no collusion.” His report clarified that “collusion” is a legally meaningless term, while also documenting extensive ways in which Trump and his campaign advisers encouraged, sought to profit from, and attempted to conspire with Russia’s “sweeping and systematic” attack on our political system, and then extensively lied about it.
Mueller did not find enough evidence to charge anyone in Trumpworld with a deliberate criminal conspiracy. That is nothing like what Jordan claims. But the monumental distortion that Mueller found no “collusion,” which is meant to imply that he found no wrongdoing or misconduct of any kind, will serve as the foundation for the line of questioning designed to undermine Mueller.
In other words, the Republican line of attack is basically: So when, exactly, did you reach this conclusion that you never actually reached — that no wrongdoing or misconduct of any kind took place — and how long did you conceal this nonexistent conclusion from the American people?
How Trumpian disinformation works
But what this all illustrates is how this kind of disinformation is supposed to work. Jordan knows that the real intended audience for these attacks on Mueller — that is, the Trump base — exists in an alternate universe where Mueller found no corruption or wrongdoing whatsoever. He also knows pro-Trump media can be counted on to spin the events at the Mueller hearings — no matter what happens — into proof of that nonexistent total exoneration, and into proof that Mueller nefariously concealed the nonexistent total exoneration, too.
The fact that so many previous efforts to unmask the Mueller investigation as illegitimate imploded proves the point: Those implosions do not complicate the spinning of this alt-narrative in the least, because in spite of them, the alt-narrative’s purveyors just keep on claiming it has been proved right.
To be sure, this sort of disinformation is also about polluting the public debate. As you’ll recall, Trump’s attorney general, William P. Barr, offered a summary of the Mueller report that almost comically downplayed Mueller’s finding that Trumpworld expected to profit from Russia’s sabotage of our election, in a manner similar to Jordan’s, albeit much more shrewdly executed.
As Brian Beutler noted, many in the media were an “easy mark” for Barr’s dishonest treatment of the Mueller findings. The press hyped it in a way that ended up skewing public discussion, by forcing the real narrative of Mueller’s findings to compete for airtime with a fake one. It’s reasonable to worry that similar media treatment of bad-faith GOP claims about what the Mueller hearings “revealed” could unbalance the public debate again.
Still, in the end, it’s more likely that this GOP strategy will harm Trump more than it helps him. While his voters and media loyalists will adopt GOP spin on the Mueller hearings, swing voters are more likely to see an array of Republicans attacking Mueller, and come away with the larger message that Republicans think his findings were bad for Trump — and thus that they didn’t represent “total exoneration” in the least.