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This Is a Good Way to Create a Legitimacy Crisis

The indictment of Paul Manafort should signal the Trump administration's suspect role in the 2016 election. But for many, it won't.
Paul Manafort leaves the E. Barrett Prettyman United States Courthouse after being charged on October 30th, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

Paul Manafort leaves the E. Barrett Prettyman United States Courthouse after being charged on October 30th, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

Political observers (myself included) have spilled a lot of ink in 2017 trying to figure out just what a constitutional crisis is, and whether the United States is in the middle of one. Amid all that analysis, there's a simple truth that's often ignored: We do not need a constitutional crisis for democracy to be undermined. We've been seeing a great example of this fact over the past few days, when word came down that Special Counsel Robert Mueller would soon be issuing indictments stemming from the investigation of the Trump campaign's possible collusion with Russia.

The response to the Mueller announcement from the right—from the White House to its allies in the media—has been an array of misinformation, distraction, and outright lying.

To wit:

  • President Donald Trump went on a Twitter tirade to wildly claim that it was Hillary Clinton who actually colluded with Russia.
  • Corey Lewandowski went on Fox News to complain about "the continued lies of the Clinton administration."
  • Jeanine Pirro used her Fox News segment to demand that Clinton be locked up.
  • Multiple conservative news outlets chose to push a fallacious story that Clinton bowed to donor pressure to push the sale of uranium mines to Russia when she was secretary of state.
  • Sean Hannity, Sebastian Gorka, and other Trump allies took to social media to undermine the credibility of Mueller and call for his own investigation.

To add to this, the Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed by David Rivkin and Lee Casey urging Trump to pardon everyone involved in the Russia collusion investigation (along with various fictitious scandals) in an effort to end the criminalization of politics. All this came before the indictments were even handed down.

Then on Monday morning, after the indictments of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates (both of whom have pleaded not guilty), and news of a plea deal with George Papadopoulos, the White House responded by saying that the former campaign manager had nothing to do with the Trump administration. Meanwhile, Fox News offered detailed coverage of cheeseburger emojis and Halloween candy.

What's going on here goes well beyond spin. This is an attempt to construct an alternate universe for supporters of the president and viewers of Fox News. It is a universe where, surrounded by would-be enemies, Trump is exempt from the law, and Clinton is the source of all electoral evils. All of the above examples illustrate how this sham universe responds to an ongoing criminal investigation of the president of the United States and his associates by a special counsel appointed by the Department of Justice. This is about as serious as government work gets, being performed by a lifelong Republican and former Federal Bureau of Investigation director with sterling credentials, and it's being undermined, ignored, and distorted by the White House.

The plain objective here is that, even if overwhelming evidence is produced that shows the Trump campaign conspired with a hostile foreign power to subvert an American presidential election, roughly 40 percent of the country simply won't believe that evidence. They'll believe the far more comforting view being offered by the White House, Fox News, and the Wall Street Journal, even if it bears no relationship with empirical fact.

This is where the crisis lies. People are used to pundits and politicians creating their own narratives. But these folks are peddling complete fiction—that nearly half the country insists on believing, at the expense of empirical facts dug up by investigators and journalists. We are at a point where objectivity is meaningless, where institutions are no longer trusted, and where truth is whatever comes out of the mouths of those in power.

It should be noted that the Constitution is actually functioning reasonably well. The ability of the government to investigate itself, as manifested in the special counsel, is an important check on government lawlessness and abuse of power. But if Trump and his allies have so tarnished that check, if it is simply to be disbelieved because it is investigating the president, then a constitutional crisis, whether we're experiencing one or not, is beside the point.