The media and political establishment have seriously misread the Mueller probe’s potential impact on President Trump. The electorate has largely factored in potential damage. Overlooked is any possible upside for the president.
Since the beginning, accusations of Trump campaign collusion with Russia have hung over this administration. With Robert Mueller’s appointment as special counsel a year ago, establishment media and presidential opponents have spun the narrative the president could be implicated at any time.
While the administration has lived beneath this sword of Damocles, its opposition has coalesced around it. So enamored are the president’s opponents by their own story line they have ignored increasing questions surrounding the investigation and the public’s decreasing interest in it.
The establishment media and the president’s opponents are certain the investigation only bodes ill for Mr. Trump. However, current and past public response suggests the investigation’s greater potential impact actually could be positive for the president.
Evidence for this conclusion comes from Mr. Trump’s own rebound. Hitting his public approval nadir last August, the president has dramatically improved since. Yet during this improvement, Russian collusion coverage has remained constant. Apparently the broader public has discounted the story so much that Mr. Trump is roughly where he was when elected — i.e., before the story surfaced.
Understanding this requires understanding the electorate’s basic groups and the investigation’s basic outcomes.
Mr. Trump’s opponents are largely liberals, who accept the probe and his guilt. His supporters are largely conservatives, who reject the investigation as illegitimate, and increasingly, politically-motivated. Between these are the largely unaligned moderates, apparently wearied by the investigation and inured to it.
The investigation can have three basic outcomes. Mr. Trump’s worst-case scenario is being charged with a crime. The middle outcome is not being charged. And the third is having the investigation proved to have been politically motivated.
The worst-case scenario’s impact can now be discounted for several reasons. The investigation has gone so long it has lost most of its audience beyond Mr. Trump’s opponents. Further, having lasted so long, and with coverage so negative, the broader electorate has already factored in the investigation’s worst points: The impact it is going to have has already occurred on those susceptible to it.
Further, Bill Clinton proved the worst case’s trajectory is not unilinear, as Mr. Trump’s opponents suppose. Impeachment proved survivable — even the extreme of being impeached by an opposition Congress. Ken Starr’s prolonged investigation helped turn Mr. Clinton from villain to victim.
If danger from the worst-case scenario is less than conventionally imagined, the other two scenarios’ possible positives are higher. Considering the negative coverage, not being charged would mean de facto exoneration — even with the investigation assuredly refusing to explicitly say so. If the investigation were believed — even if unproved — to be politically motivated, then it and its undiscerning coverage would be implicated.
Both scenarios would leave Mr. Trump the victim — just as Mr. Clinton was two decades ago — and better off.
The outcomes’ potential impact can be understood by recalling the groups involved. Because liberals are the bulk of his hardcore opponents, this further limits Mr. Trump’s downside risk from a worst-case scenario. Election 2016 exit polling showed liberals were just 26 percent of the electorate, and Mr. Trump won just 10 percent of them. This group, comprising just a quarter of the electorate, has little room to grow more negative.
Moderates made up 39 percent, and conservatives 35 percent, of the electorate. Mr. Trump only won 40 percent of the former and 81 percent of the latter. Mr. Clinton’s encounter with the worst-case scenario shows downside risk with the general electorate may be less than conventionally imagined: Mr. Trump may well have already lost those he will lose here.
Conversely, there is substantial upside opportunity with this three-quarters of the electorate. Either middle, or best case, scenario would likely offer Mr. Trump an unexpected opportunity with moderates and conservatives. Both could be sympathetic to Mr. Trump appearing as a targeted victim.
For some time, the media and political establishments have assumed Mr. Trump being charged via Mr. Mueller’s investigation. Likewise, they have assumed there was only one possible outcome should Mr. Trump be charged. Neither assumption necessarily holds — especially for the broad American electorate not already opposing Mr. Trump.
The conventional focus has not considered the worst-case scenario’s damage may well be capped. Nor has any consideration been given that the investigation’s other possible outcomes have significant political upside: Mr. Trump has substantial room for increase with an electorate three times his core opposition’s size.
The establishment has largely prejudged; the broad electorate has largely discounted. The growth potential of the president’s opposition is constrained; his growth potential with three-quarters of the electorate is considerable. The result: The investigation’s positive potential for the president is far greater and more likely than most have been willing to consider.
• J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary of the Treasury.
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