Yet another shoe has dropped in the investigation into Russia’s involvement in the last U.S. presidential election.
Close associates of President Donald Trump have been indicted, including his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort.
Many view the Russia inquiry, overseen by special counsel Robert Mueller, as the silver bullet to the Trump presidency. These opponents believe that a finding of collusion will end the regime and bring Trump down.
They reason that, much like the Watergate scandal, the lies and resulting coverup will reveal a deeply compromised president whose tenure will be irreparably damaged.
But critics who think that way continue to be naïve to our new political world.
Even if Mueller finds hard evidence of collusion, it may not be enough to bring down a president who remains buoyed by his supporters. Perhaps even more problematically for these opponents, a successful impeachment may represent a long-term setback for their own side.
There are a multitude of reasons for this, but among the most prominent is President Trump’s remarkable ability to obfuscate and confuse stories. Aided by a network of conservative media outlets, the president has managed to refocus and deflect allegations by constantly relaying messages on irrelevant or tangentially related issues.
For instance, on the same day that the media — CNN the lead among them — were breathlessly reporting the indictment of Manafort for suspicious activity with the Russian government, Trump began tweeting about Hillary Clinton’s relationship with a mining company acquired by a Russian corporation.
The issue had nothing to do with the Mueller investigation. Nonetheless, it successfully gained traction on a number of platforms, including much of television news. The problem is that most consumers of news do so casually at best.
If you had watched the news or skimmed the headlines that day, it would be difficult to not conflate Clinton, Russia, collusion and Trump.
None of this is a coincidence. The Mueller investigation is extremely complicated and the president’s messages only make the issue more difficult to follow.
Trump seems to have a mastery of this communication strategy. He and his White House allies, aided by the 24/7 media cycle, have managed to noticeably turn the dial and intentionally confuse the issue on Russia’s election involvement.
To the well-read and focused reader, it seems rather obvious that the Trump campaign — or at least some of those embedded within it — worked with agents of the Russian government to release information that would hurt Clinton in the election.
And yet, the general population has far less understanding of this issue. And that will be critical for Mr. Trump’s survival when the inevitable fallout from Mr. Mueller’s investigation occurs.
Trump has a dedicated following that has demonstrated considerable resistance to abandoning the president, and it seems unlikely that the complicated Russia issue will dissuade them any further.
If, in the end, the issue is not a cut-and-tried accusation that has direct ties to the president, it is unlikely that those who have not yet abandoned him will all of a sudden head for the doors. The issue has now been around long enough and has become confused enough that the media apparatus that supports Trump will prove, once again, to be his biggest asset.
As we have seen all year, Trump’s appeal to a loyal base places considerable pressure on Republican members of Congress to remain loyal to the president.
Further to the practical challenges of the Mueller inquiry, it remains a question if it is even advisable to try to tackle the president in this way. Trump was elected to drain the Washington swamp and attack the entrenched Washington interests that voters revile so much.
Should the president be removed from office by the Congress, aided by investigations undertaken by federal agencies, it is almost certain that it would be seen as a coup by his supporters. Trump would claim, and would likely be supported by the conservative media network, that his ouster was the inside-the-Beltway crew yet again protecting itself.
Such an outcome could be disastrous for those who revile Trump’s presidency. Their attempt to eject him from office could well backfire and, instead, inspire a backlash in the next election.
Those opponents of Trump who are watching the investigation unfold with glee need to beware. It is a road filled with traps, detours and blind spots. And while many want to storm down that road with little caution, heed must be paid to the many unforeseen consequences that lie ahead.
Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.