There is an old joke about a man who finally takes a vacation, leaving his elderly mother and his cat, Walter, in the care of his brother.
On his very first day of vacation, the man phones home to inquire about things and he asks, “How’s Walter?” The brother promptly informs him that his cat is dead.
Incredulous, the man says, “You just ruined my whole vacation! Instead of telling me right away, you should string it along. Today, you could have said the cat is on the roof of the house, but we’ll get him down. Tomorrow, you could have said you got him down, but that he’s sick. By the end of the week, you could have told me that Walter put up a valiant fight, had lived a full life, but was dead... ”
“By the way,” the man continued, “how’s mom doing?”
“She’s on the roof,” the brother replies.
It is dark humor, to be sure, but it does a good job of illustrating how the “drip, drip, drip” of information can soften the blow of a hard truth.
I think of that joke every time there is some crazy revelation that shocks us on Friday, only to be largely forgotten by Tuesday (when, of course, the next crazy thing happens).
And I thought of it recently as reports surfaced alleging that Donald Trump directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Cable news outlets greeted this as another bombshell story, but that fell apart when the Special Counsel’s Office denied the accuracy of the reporting.
It’s hard to overstate the damage that is done when media outlets get stories wrong. Even when we get them right, it’s debatable whether the steady drumbeat of negative headlines will lead to a tipping point. Will Trump’s support eventually collapse upon the weight of mounting evidence—or will the flood of information (some of which is debunked) instead overwhelm Americans, causing us to rationalize the new normal, even as Trump’s team seeks to move the goalposts regarding what constitutes “collusion”?
Put another way, the Mueller report is already being released to us through the indictments, leaks, and news reports (like this one about Cohen). No doubt, there are more shoes to drop, and some new information will surely come out of the Mueller report. But ask yourself: have we already gotten a sneak preview? Sometimes the trailer contains the best part of a blockbuster.
Fearful of this possibility, Mueller’s team is playing the expectations game in reverse—by trying to lower them. That may explain why “people close to Mueller” told ABC News’ Jon Karl that the Mueller report “is certain to be anti-climactic.” And it may explain why Mueller’s team is moving to preserve the integrity of their work by calling out fake news. The problem here is that the damage has probably already been done. This whole BuzzFeed story just contributes to the general sense (among a lot of Americans) that all the allegations against Trump are “fake news.”
Now, a competing theory suggests the Mueller report will, in fact, be a bombshell. The idea is that this all becomes “real” once a report is issued and people begin to take it seriously. After all, who knows what crazy information might still be left on the table? Who knows what Michael Cohen might have on tape recordings, or what unreported information he has told Robert Mueller?
I will just say that I’m skeptical that we can flip a switch when the Mueller report is issued. What could the report contain that is any more damning or fantastical than the things already reported or bandied about?
Either way, count me among those who say that Trump’s Justice Department has to release the Mueller report in full (allowing for national security redactions made by a third-party arbitrator). Releasing it is not a foregone conclusion, but if Trump chooses to stonewall, it would be a big mistake. The stigma will cloud his presidency and rip apart what remains of the country’s political fabric. He may not care about the latter, but information has a way of seeping out. Trump’s best strategy for survival is probably to adopt a "nothing to see here" attitude.
Just like the joke about the man who went on vacation and inquired about his cat, we have been conditioned to the idea that Trump did shady things with Russia. The cake is already baked. So release it, spin it, and ignore the messy parts―straight up lie about it. Trump can get away with that behavior among his base. His macho persona with them is bolstered; he's big enough and tough enough to take it. But hide it? Never. Hiding information suggests weakness.
Of course, it’s possible that Mueller really does have the goods on him. If that’s the case, Trump is in so much trouble that it won’t matter how adeptly or shrewdly he handles things. In this scenario, as his approval rating continues to drop, congressional Republicans may finally calculate it’s safer to abandon him.
And then, the call will go out: Trump’s presidency is on the roof.