Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and President Trump. (Saul Loeb, Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

For the 150th time while in office, President Trump on Thursday declared the investigation into his 2016 campaign and possible coordination with Russian actors a “witch hunt” on Twitter. For the third time, that description was the entirety of the tweet, just a lonely, all-caps “WITCH HUNT” slipped into existence with a press of thumb on glass.

The investigation is obviously not a witch hunt, having obtained guilty pleas from people directly or indirectly tied to Trump’s campaign. The most recent fallout from the investigation was Michael Cohen’s admission of guilt in lying to Congress, as part of his sentencing on a number of other charges in a New York courtroom on Wednesday. Cohen, Trump’s former longtime personal attorney, was sentenced to prison on fraud and campaign finance charges, with a concurrent two months applied to his three-year sentence on the lying charge obtained by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s team.

But none of those charges have established a clear link between Trump’s campaign and the Russia misinformation and interference effort. There were numerous meetings between Russian nationals and Trump campaign representatives. There’s lots of smoke, but no clear connection between what Russia did and what the campaign was doing — much less to Trump himself. Ergo, witch hunt.

On 57 occasions, Trump’s tweeted “no collusion,” establishing the benchmark Mueller needs to hit to prove that the investigation was worthwhile — proof of Trump himself having worked with Russia to influence the election. For many of his supporters, anything short of that mark is indeed a sign that Mueller has come up dry.

And that may prove to be Trump’s salvation.

That “may” is doing a lot of work, admittedly. We don’t know what links Mueller’s investigators might have found to tightly bind Trump to Russian activity. We certainly know that Trump’s other tweets have often proved to be incorrect or outright lies; there’s no reason to take them at face value. But as it stands, that benchmark of culpability hasn’t been hit, and that tends to obscure the importance of the activity that has been demonstrated.

Among those issues are those campaign finance charges to which Cohen admitted guilt. Trump’s personal attorney on two occasions in late 2016 was involved in orchestrating illegal six-figure payments to women who alleged extramarital affairs with Trump, one a former Playboy model and the other an adult-film actress. In one case, the payment came from the publisher of the National Enquirer, which earlier this year itself admitted to guilt in being involved in an illegal payment meant to influence the election. In the other case, Cohen himself paid the money, using a line of credit he obtained by committing fraud. Trump was obviously aware of the former payment; he and Cohen are on record discussing it. Trump has admitted indirectly being aware of the latter payment, and Cohen has testified under oath that it happened at Trump’s direction. Those payments kept information about Trump’s personal life hidden before an election in which he won the presidency on the strength of 78,000 votes in three states.

That story alone is exceptional in the history of presidential campaign behavior. Even the idea that a president would be implicated in an illegal payoff to secure an election would be an unusual occurrence in U.S. history — much less two such payoffs in a close race for a candidate who had been enthusiastically backed by religious conservatives.

But, for three reasons, it gets obscured.

The first is the deliberate effort to downplay what is alleged to have happened. Conservatives such as the Washington Examiner’s Byron York argue that the allegations are not serious or even illegal. As with nearly any allegation of illegal behavior, there can be debate over the boundaries of what’s established under the law. But given that two of the participants in the two payments have admitted that the money was paid to influence the election and, more importantly, admitted to violating the law as a result, that argument weakens a bit. American Media Inc., the parent company of the National Enquirer, could certainly have afforded to fight the government on the question of whether its payment constituted illegal activity. That it didn’t do so is telling.

The second reason the story is obscured is that it has often been downplayed.

Consider cable television. Fox News is the most trusted news outlet among Republicans, according to Suffolk University polling. It and its sister network, Fox Business, have covered Cohen far, far less than CNN and MSNBC have over the past two years.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

The two Foxes have similarly given much less coverage to Stormy Daniels, the adult-film actress paid directly by Cohen.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

Over the past two years, CNN has covered Cohen four times as much as has Fox News. MSNBC has covered him five times as much. Viewers of Fox News are necessarily less aware of what’s happened with Cohen and Daniels than are viewers of the other networks.

Compare that with mentions of “collusion.”


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

No network has covered collusion more over the past two years than Fox News. It’s not much of a stretch to argue that the network’s position on the subject has broadly mirrored Trump’s. A review of discussion of collusion over the course of 2017 on “Fox & Friends,” Trump’s most cited show on Fox News, shows that the hosts regularly interviewed guests who denied any collusion and themselves reinforced that idea. Some quotes from March of 2017:

  • March 6, host Steve Doocy: “James Clapper said there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. There is no there there.” 
  • March 10, Doocy: “This guy Clapper, I don’t believe a word he says. Although he did say there is no evidence of collusion between Trump and the Russians.” 
  • March 17, Doocy: “They ran audio last night there was some smoke but there was absolutely no fire. There was no collusion.” 
  • March 21, host Brian Kilmeade: “Now as other people have said, it doesn’t result in collusion but it just makes President Trump look bad.” 
  • March 24, host Pete Hegseth: “They jumped on the fact that there had to be collusion between the Russians and Trump campaign without evidence.” 
  • March 31, a person-on-the-street interviewee: “No collusion. I wish they would move on.”   

That’s one month, without even including every mention. Well before Mueller even got to work, the show was toeing Trump’s line.

Notice the other difference in that last chart: It extends much further back. Coverage of Cohen — which includes far more than the campaign finance allegations — began in earnest in April, with the raid on his homes and office in New York. Collusion has been burbling since shortly after the election, with the first stories about Russian interference.

That, again, is the third thing obscuring Trump’s actual exposure in the campaign finance violations: He set the standard at misbehavior as direct collusion months before any of this other stuff emerged. For every incremental new revelation about criminal activity by people related to the campaign or for every new development in the hush-money story, the immediate rejoinder from Trump and his base is consistent: Where’s the collusion? Show me the collusion.

Imagine again that the Russia investigation didn’t exist and that these campaign finance allegations — and Trump’s evolving misrepresentations about what happened — were the most significant issue the president faced. He’d still have defenders, but the direct pressure he faced would probably be more significant.

The Russian “witch hunt” may never implicate Trump in untoward or criminal activity. That it occupies the public’s imagination during this period instead of the campaign finance issue gives Trump cover that, for all of his dislike of Mueller’s probe, should be more than welcome in the president’s eyes.