The Maximal Case in Trump-Russia Starts to Break Through in U.S. Media (plus a Return to White House Exit Strategy)
Read the news lately? It isn’t good for the Trump White House — and seems to be getting worse.
How should we feel about the New York Times headline: “F.B.I. Opened Inquiry Into Whether Trump Was Secretly Working on Behalf of Russia”?
Should we feel shock or surprise? No, we shouldn’t, but many of us do.
It’s not our fault. At least not really.
Until now, many in the news media have been reticent to present what some call “The Maximal Case” on Trump and Russia despite two years-plus of reporting, indictments, pleas and behavior by the President himself pointing us in that direction. As Josh Marshall wrote after the NYT article posted last night:
This is a big story. But I think it mainly tears the bandaid off the national denial. President Trump often appears to be working on behalf or Vladimir Putin or under his influence. He seeks out communications with him hidden from the US government. The story of the last two years — in addition to quite a few other huge storylines — is that the country has largely acted as though this state of affairs is normal. It is, of course, not. It is a running crisis.
At a high level, I would define The Maximal Case as Trump himself— either wittingly or unwittingly — conspiring with Russia and/or other foreign nations or actors against the interests of the United States and our democracy.
Yes, this is a huge and unprecedented allegation: a sitting U.S. President working against the national interest of his own nation.
That makes it at least somewhat understandable why many in the news media have been slow-walking the language they have used to describe the big picture over time, focusing more on the vague language of “collusion” regarding the campaign or the specific investigations related to obstruction of justice, campaign finance violations, Russian hacking, felony pleas and other run-of-the-mill criminal and corruption stories like money laundering.
However, it’s surprising that it has taken this long to have headlines making the Maximal Case more apparent, especially given how much we already know about the President’s public statements and actions that support it directly:
- His request that Russia hack Hillary Clinton (followed by Russia actually trying to do it that evening)
- His expressed motive for firing James Comey to stop the Russia investigation (following drafting of a letter to the same effect)
- His meeting in the oval office with Russian officials (where he revealed classified information about a U.S. ally to a geopolitical adversary)
- His siding with Putin in Helsinki (instead of U.S. intelligence agencies)
One could go on and on at this point.
In the past week alone, we see both the evidentiary predicate and media headlines getting closer to the center of a Maximal Case of a Trump campaign — and administration — conspiracy with a foreign power:
- January 8 — Washington Post: Paul Manafort shared 2016 polling data with Russian associate, according to court filing
- January 9 — New York Times: Veselnitskaya, Russian in Trump Tower Meeting, Is Charged in Case That Shows Kremlin Ties
- January 11 — New York Times: Mnuchin Defends Plan to Lift Sanctions on Russian Oligarch’s Companies
- January 12 — New York Times: F.B.I. Opened Inquiry Into Whether Trump Was Secretly Working on Behalf of Russia
Threads and threats to the President, his campaign, his company, and his family are being tied together in the public record with increasing speed.
Can you imagine what is going through Trump’s mind with a daily dose of criminal prosecutorial threats to himself and his family?
He’s got to be terrified. At least he is expanding his legal defense team just in time for the Super Bowl.
Should this impact thinking about White House exit strategy?
The temperature is rising on Trump, so what might he be thinking, assuming a Maximal Case is more or less accurate — and now being communicated more clearly in the news media?
A few weeks ago, I published some speculation on White House exit strategies, starting with some assumptions about Trump’s base goals: to avoid jail time, to prevent his kids from going to jail, and to be able to declare some sort of “victory.”
You can read the piece and the genesis of my thinking in my earlier Twitter thread, but it boils down to my belief that Trump’s best strategy is a broad and multi-prosecutor negotiated resignation as opposed to facing re-election and/or facing impeachment.
If such a multi-party negotiation were possible, it would need to include a variety of DOJ, New York State, Manhattan DA and potentially other state and local prosecutors who may have criminal cases against Trump, the Trump Organization and/or his family.
Yes, that sounds quite unlikely, but Trump is supposed to be both a deal-maker and norm-breaker right?
New Information for the Electorate
A continued change in trajectory of the media narrative toward the Maximal Case should make the case for a negotiated exit stronger. The Maximal Case presents a more compelling argument to remove Trump in particular and substantial “new information” to the electorate.
In politics and political communication, new information is often under estimated in its ability to re-shape public opinion. (Caveat: on the other hand, the ability of that new information to break through a highly partisan, filtered and fractured media environment presents another challenge and discussion altogether.)
According to Pew Research in 2018, only 21% of Americans have a favorable view of Russia, with 64% holding an unfavorable view. If the Maximal Case becomes apparent to a larger swath of the electorate, 21% is a lot smaller than the President’s current approval rating of 41%.
Who knows when all the investigations will finish and what exactly they will reveal, but it is a good bet that new indictments are on the horizon. To the degree that underlying evidence and exhibits in those cases support the Maximal Case, and counter to much conventional wisdom, there is a case to be made that a larger than expected impact on public opinion (and hopefully with Republican elected officials, too) is possible.
If anyone from the White House is reading, my best advice: the President should pursue a negotiated resignation sooner rather than later.
To everyone else: buckle up.