By Paul Waldman
It sometimes feels as if the Trump presidency has been one long scandal, whether it manifests itself on a particular day in private jet flights taken by cabinet officials, the muzzling of EPA scientists, or president Trump exploiting the presidency to increase his own income. But underneath all those smaller scandals is the Big One: Russia.
With special counsel Robert Mueller set to release his first round of indictments this week, the scandal is about to begin a new and intense phase. While Democrats are pretty much standing back and watching, Republicans are preparing for war. This is going to be one of the greatest tests their formidable spin machine has ever faced, and their mobilization has already begun.
But before we discuss what that means, we have to stand back and marvel at the power of partisanship to shape people's views, at least Republicans'. Try to imagine for a moment what they would be saying if Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 election and there was either outright proof or convincing evidence of all of the following:
- Russia used a variety of social media in order to attempt to sway the election in Clinton's favor
- Russia hacked into the email accounts of Republican officials and then released those emails to WikiLeaks in a coordinated effort to embarrass Republicans at their convention
- Russian hackers also targeted Republican House candidates
- Russia sent Kremlin representatives to meet with Clinton's campaign manager, along with Chelsea Clinton and her husband, who would later both become key advisers working in the White House, with the promise of dirt on Donald Trump, possibly in exchange for a change in U.S. policy that Vladimir Putin desperately wanted
- When the story of that meeting became public, the president herself dictated a misleading statement about it obviously intended to throw everyone off the story
- Russia arranged a series of meetings with people who would become high-ranking Trump administration officials, including the attorney general and the national security adviser, officials who would subsequently lie about those meetings
- Clinton's campaign manager had a series of complex and sketchy arrangements involving millions of dollars with foreign puppets of Putin
- Clinton had curious relationships going back decades with a series of Russian oligarchs and mobsters
- Clinton publicly implored the Russian government to hack into her opponent's email
- Clinton tried to enlist the director of national intelligence and the head of the National Security Agency to discredit the Russia investigation
- Clinton fired the director of the FBI and announced on national television that she did it in order to shut down the Russia investigation
- Clinton told the Russian foreign minister and ambassador that because she fired the FBI director, "I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off."
If all of that had happened, can anyone say with a straight face that Republicans would not have positively lost their minds with rage? That we wouldn't be hearing the word "treason" a hundred times a day? That President Clinton wouldn't have already been impeached by the House and on her way to a trial in the Senate?
Of course not. But Republicans have recently transformed their spin, from "None of that is any big deal" to "Hillary Clinton is the one who colluded with Russia!" It's their version of the brilliant schoolyard retort "I know you are but what am I," except in this case it's backed up by a media apparatus whose power lies in its ability to take a message, no matter how ludicrous, and shout it as such ear-splitting volume and with such numbing repetition that every Republican quickly understands exactly what they're supposed to believe and supposed to say.
That's what's happening right now, as the right has reanimated an old Clinton non-scandal involving the sale of a uranium company, and seized on the fact that the Clinton campaign and the DNC paid an opposition researcher who wrote a dossier rounding up facts and rumors about Trump's Russia connections, some of which have been corroborated and some of which haven't. Every prominent campaign does opposition research, and the information in that dossier wasn't used by the Clinton campaign (it only came to light in January), but who cares? It's enough for Fox News personalities to demand that Hillary Clinton literally be jailed.
And believe me, they're just getting started. From Trump lickspittle Sean Hannity (who reportedly speaks to the president several times a week) to Tucker Carlson to Trump stalwart Laura Ingraham (whose Fox show conveniently premiers this week), the network will be at Defcon 1, launching accusations at Clinton around the clock. They'll be supported by Rush Limbaugh and a hundred other conservative talk radio hosts, and by Breitbart, Drudge, and bevy of right-wing websites. Republican members of Congress will leap before any camera they can find to the repeat the talking point that Hillary Clinton is the one who really colluded with Russia.
And then, of course, there's the tweeter-in-chief. I give you his rant from Sunday, which much be beheld in full to appreciate its splendor:
Never seen such Republican ANGER & UNITY as I have concerning the lack of investigation on Clinton made Fake Dossier (now $12,000,000?),.... — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 29, 2017
...the Uranium to Russia deal, the 33,000 plus deleted Emails, the Comey fix and so much more. Instead they look at phony Trump/Russia,.... — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 29, 2017
..."collusion," which doesn't exist. The Dems are using this terrible (and bad for our country) Witch Hunt for evil politics, but the R's... — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 29, 2017
...are now fighting back like never before. There is so much GUILT by Democrats/Clinton, and now the facts are pouring out. DO SOMETHING! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 29, 2017
All of this "Russia" talk right when the Republicans are making their big push for historic Tax Cuts & Reform. Is this coincidental? NOT! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 29, 2017
That is one worried man, as well he might be. But one thing he doesn't have to worry about is whether the entire right has his back. No matter how many indictments there are, no matter what damning facts are revealed, no matter how deep this scandal goes, they will be behind him, screaming at the top of their lungs that the whole thing is a frame-up, and that the Democrats, especially Hillary Clinton, are the real villains. It should be a thoroughly depressing time.