The long-anticipated Mueller report has at last been released. Now the next phase of the investigation begins: the battle for political justice.
That battle will take place not in a court of law or a special counsel's office, but in the public. That's because, for good or ill, the definition of presidential misconduct has become directly connected to the fight over public opinion — a fight that Richard Nixon lost and Bill Clinton won.
And that’s a serious problem for President Trump. Because the former reality TV star has, surprisingly, consistently struggled in this arena. According to the Gallup poll, Trump is the first president to never have even one day where a majority of Americans supported him. While Trump’s unprecedented media style helped him win the presidency, it has repeatedly undermined his efforts to govern.
Of course, he isn’t the first president to have a roller-coaster relationship with the media. Richard Nixon’s political career was defined by it. In 1952, he famously saved his vice-presidential spot on the Republican ticket by holding a nationally televised conversation with the American public, in which he discussed, in intimate detail, his family’s finances. In the speech, he denied accepting any secret gifts from donors save one: his dog Checkers, whom he declared he would not give back because of how much his daughter loved the pet.
After a narrow loss in his presidential race eight years later, one he attributed to John Kennedy’s “showbiz politics” approach, Nixon vowed to once again master television. And in the short term, he did. His 1968 campaign broke ground for its use of powerful music and images crafted by advertising and television professionals, helping him eke out a narrow victory and win the White House.
Nixon firmly believed that the difference between Nixon the loser and Nixon the winner was his ability to control the media narrative. It then became the focus of his presidency. The infamous Committee to Re-Elect the President was first and foremost a public relations committee, one dedicated to promoting the image of the president and destroying his enemies. He implemented many media strategies, including the establishment of the White House communications office to coordinate messages, and used any means necessary to silence opponents and stop leaks that challenged his presidential narrative.
But Nixon’s downfall came when the very same tactics he had mastered were wielded against him. The Watergate hearings were televised for the nation to see, putting the Senate Judiciary Committee at center stage, with senators like Sam Ervin becoming national celebrities. The hearings gave Congress a taste of what presidents had long cultivated: the vast power of television.
The hearings also brought the public into the process. As the public television anchor Jim Lehrer explained on the first day of the hearings, “We think it is important that you get a chance to see the whole thing and make your own judgments.” Having endured attacks for being too elitist and liberally biased in their reporting, television anchors emphasized the importance of viewers making their own decisions about the hearings as they unfolded.
This was precisely the problem, claimed Nixon loyalists like Vice President Spiro Agnew. He argued that the camera encouraged “an emotional and dramatic factor which gets in the way of a deliberate, dispassionate pursuit of truth.” According to Agnew, television viewers were making ill-informed judgments based on faulty information and emotion, ultimately doing great harm to the system of law and order.
In reality, however, this deeply public spectacle, which enabled Americans to judge Nixon for themselves, deflected charges that the investigation was partisan or much ado about nothing. Senators like Ervin appeared poised and reasonable. And the list of White House crimes committed was shocking.
This process itself introduced a new style of televised political justice that would become ingrained in American politics over the next 40 years. Aiding the rise of this new political process: the introduction of C-SPAN in 1979 and CNN in 1980. By the 1990s, the audience for cable grew, and so too did the influence of 24/7 news programs that didn’t simply report official statements as the news of the day. The “punditocracy” spent hours examining the behind-the-scenes White House operations that coordinated news releases and photo ops.
No one understood this better than Bill Clinton.
Like Nixon before him, Clinton masterfully used this media environment to his advantage. He carefully cultivated his celebrity persona with MTV appearances and bypassed traditional broadcast and journalism outlets by appearing on “Larry King Live” and talk radio. It helped him win the presidency in 1992, and he brought his media-savvy “War Room” to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
For much of his presidency, Clinton’s spin team had to put out fires tied to charges of presidential misconduct: from Travelgate (assertions that members of the White House Travel Office had been unfairly fired) to Whitewater (an investigation over a real estate venture by the Clintons) to campaign finance violations during the 1996 campaign. Then: accusations of sexual harassment by Paula Jones, which turned into testimony under oath about his affair with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky.
The result was a media circus, but Clinton won where Nixon lost. Why? Because Clinton’s spinmeisters had mastered the post-Watergate media landscape and were ready for a televised battle for political justice.
From Day One, Clinton’s team assumed the offensive, realizing that winning the public over was crucial to survival. Clinton’s surrogates hit the talk show circuit to disparage Lewinsky’s reputation, question the political motivations of special investigator Kenneth Starr and attack the media itself for reporting on rumors, not facts, and traipsing unfairly into the president’s personal life. When the investigation forced Clinton to admit to the affair, he projected serious contrition for his moral failures and personal shortcomings, even as he emphasized his right to privacy. This stance reinforced the larger narrative crafted by his administration about the excessive partisanship driving the investigation and the personal nature of the charges: that Clinton hadn’t engaged in serious misconduct; he had failed on a human level and partisan opponents were trying to weaponize it.
Clinton waded deeply into questionable ethical and legal waters over the course of his presidency. But by winning the spin war, he avoided removal by the Senate during the impeachment proceedings. Both the media and Congress, once the heroes of Watergate, became objects of public disdain for their publicity-seeking tactics, while the American people made it clear during the 1998 midterm elections they wanted Clinton to remain in office.
The Trump team is clearly trying to follow Clinton’s strategy, with Attorney General William P. Barr releasing what now appears to be an overly generous-to-the-president summary of the Mueller report and then holding a news conference Thursday morning to try to frame its release as evidence that Trump did not commit any crimes.
Trump is armed with Twitter and his allies at Fox News to help him wage battle — on Thursday night he tweeted defenses from Fox hosts like Tucker Carlson and Martha MacCallum — but will this be enough? Here his track record is not great.
With a background in reality television, Trump has long relied on shock and awe publicity tactics to generate ratings and to put on a show. But this strategy has notably rejected opportunities to appear “presidential” and connect with the majority of Americans. And so while he may galvanize loyalists, Trump has consistently failed to win over Americans beyond his base. His fate may turn on how the inevitable public hearings appear to the public: an unfair, politically driven process like what confronted Clinton, or a fair-minded one, aimed at restoring the rule of law to the White House like the Senate Watergate hearings.