The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Senate GOP’s efforts to boost Trump’s reelection hopes are too ham-handed to work

President Trump speaks in Kenosha, Wis., as Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), right, listens. (Evan Vucci/AP)

The first rule of media manipulation is not to announce that you’re trying to manipulate the media. Doing so changes how journalists will receive and characterize the information you’re giving them and ultimately reduce the chance that the public will be swayed by your scheme.

Sen. Ron Johnson (Wis.) and the other Republicans on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee don’t seem to understand that; in fact, Johnson keeps blurting out that his farcical investigations into Hunter Biden and the Obama administration are indeed for the purpose of damaging Joe Biden’s presidential candidacy.

So earlier this week, Johnson told reporters, “Stay tuned. In about a week we’re going to learn a whole lot more of Vice President Biden’s unfitness for office.”

That came after he had this to say last month about his investigation: “I would think it would certainly help Donald Trump win reelection and certainly be pretty good, I would say, evidence about not voting for Vice President Biden.”

Which set the context for Wednesday, when Republicans on the committee voted to authorize three dozen subpoenas of Obama administration officials meant to prove the fantasy that they went after President-elect Trump on their way out the door. One news story called the subpoenas “a significant escalation” of the committee’s probes targeting “Trump’s political foes.”

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Sen. Mitt Romney, who sits on the committee, made news by warning that “it’s not the legitimate role of government or Congress, or for taxpayer expense to be used in an effort to damage political opponents.”

That’s how this works: If you can’t even come up with a fig leaf of legitimacy for your investigation, everyone will treat it like exactly what it is.

Here at the Plum Line we refer to the Hunter Biden story as “Hunterghazi,” because it’s an obvious attempt by Republicans to repeat the success they had with their endless probes of the 2012 attack on a U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans died.

Through eight separate congressional investigations, Republicans never managed to uncover any misconduct by Hillary Clinton. But they did create the perception that she must have done something wrong. Eventually, they discovered that she sometimes used personal email for work, which they were then able to spin, with the help of a pathetically pliant media, into one of the greatest crimes in human history.

The situation today could barely be more different. Outside of Fox News and other conservative media, the ideas that Biden corruptly manipulated the Ukrainian government to help his son Hunter, or that the Obama administration unfairly targeted Trump over the fact that his campaign was being actively supported by the Kremlin, just haven’t taken hold.

Let’s remind ourselves of the original point of the Hunter Biden story, back when it turned from a right-wing conspiracy theory into a Trump administration project that led to the president’s impeachment. Trump wanted to concoct a story that Joe Biden was corrupt not because it represented a vulnerability for Biden (let alone that it was true), but because corruption was a vulnerability for Trump.

It’s a key strategy he uses again and again. He doesn’t want to convince us that he is good and his opponents are bad; he wants to convince us that everyone is bad. It’s why, for instance, he did a media event with women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct before a debate with Hillary Clinton — just two days after we learned that he’d bragged on video about sexually assaulting women with impunity.

The point wasn’t to say that he was innocent and Bill Clinton was guilty, which would tell you almost nothing about Hillary Clinton anyway. It was to say See, everyone does it, not just me. The rest of them are hypocrites.

If all men are sexual predators, Trump can’t be condemned for being a sexual predator. If all public officials are corrupt, then we shouldn’t be too concerned about Trump’s corruption. Trump won in 2016 because so many voters thought poorly of both him and Hillary Clinton, and decided to give him a shot.

But so far, the strategy has failed badly with Biden. Even granting that it was unseemly for Hunter Biden to trade on his family name (which even he admits he did), outside of Trump’s most ardent fans, nobody really thinks Biden is corrupt.

And when you can see an intended “October surprise” coming a mile away, it’s not so surprising. Johnson has made clear his intention to release some kind of report on Hunter Biden before the election, but it won’t be a blockbuster that changes the campaign, not only because he doesn’t have the facts on his side, but also because the maneuver is so transparent.

The same may wind up being true of whatever last-minute announcement Attorney General William P. Barr makes to help Trump’s reelection bid (and you know he will). If you’re so obvious about what you’re doing, you’re unlikely to be treated as anything but the partisan hacks you are. But apparently, spending too much time advocating for Trump robs you of the ability to act with anything resembling subtlety.

Read more:

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Greg Sargent: ABC town hall shows Trump faces great peril outside Fox News bubble

Max Boot: No, this isn’t a ‘Flight 93 election.’ Trump already crashed the plane.

Dana Milbank: Trump has exposed the ‘deep state’ — and it is him

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