With former national security advisor Mike Flynn pleading guilty to a felony, and side stories about Paul Manafort and K.T. McFarland in the news, you might think that President Donald Trump’s back is against the wall.
The good news for Trump, however, is that he aims to put the whole swamp on trial. And here, his adversaries are working overtime to help perpetuate stereotypes about fake news and the deep state.
On Friday, ABC News’ chief investigative reporter Brian Ross reported that Flynn would testify that candidate Donald Trump told him to reach out to the Russians. Many hours later, Ross corrected the story on “World News Tonight,” noting that it was actually President-elect Trump.
Aside from being a big mistake about a huge story, it took hours to correct. The false information was greeted with glee by The View’s Joy Behar.
Trump fans are already convinced they can simply ignore whatever the liberal media says about Trump. And, on occasion, this looks like a perfectly rational decision. Ross’s error may very well have been an honest one (or maybe it was confirmation bias?), but for an industry that is already viewed with suspicion by half the country, there is no denying it was an incredibly costly one.
"I don't think ever in my career have I felt more rage and disappointment and frustration that I felt through this weekend and through the last half of Friday," ABC News president James Goldston reportedly said.
The media isn’t the only institution involved in holding the Trump administration accountable that seems to be in the process of shedding credibility. It was recently revealed that FBI agent Peter Strzok had been caught exchanging anti-Trump messages. It turns out that this same agent also softened then-FBI director James Comey’s language that was critical of Hillary Clinton.
And—perhaps the most relevant—according to Fox News, this same FBI agent oversaw the bureau’s interviews with Mike Flynn.
This does not negate the fact that Mike Flynn lied to the FBI. Nor, in and of itself, does it mean that Strzok was unfair toward Flynn. What it does mean, however, is that he has opened the door to Trump and his supporters to raise the possibility that he did.
It’s worth noting that Ross and Strzok are not the first or only representatives of their respective institutions to raise questions. Regardless of how you feel about James Comey, it’s fair to say that his controversial tenure provides Trump supporters with a certain amount of fodder.
But make no mistake, that’s what this is. Trump doesn’t need to prove the system is rigged; he just needs to give his supporters a plausible excuse to nullify the evidence. All they need is a shadow of a doubt—and the media and FBI have handed that to them.
It’s unclear how Trump will use this. He has long used his Twitter feed to besmirch the media, and is now publicly criticizing the FBI. This sets up an interesting potential showdown. Special counsel Robert Mueller is playing an inside game, flipping former administrating officials, and using tools like wiretapping to try to demonstrate where laws have been broken.
Trump is meanwhile playing the outside public-relations game.
The edge might normally go to the guy with subpoena power, but Trump could use the scandalous FBI story to provide a pretext for pardoning Flynn. Already, some prominent conservatives are calling for just that. That wouldn’t solve all of Trump’s problems, but it would still be a major development.
If things get really dicey, Trump could potentially use resentment over the Brian Ross and FBI stories to create the impression that a sort of coup is taking place—that a “vast left-wing conspiracy” of fake news and deep state operatives are manufacturing evidence to take him down. When you consider that impeachment is a political, not legal, process, Trump’s strategy of muddying the waters makes perfect sense.
Put yourself in the shoes of a conservative Republican who watches Fox News and listens to Rush Limbaugh all day. If your priors already lead you to suspect that powerful forces are out to overturn the 2016 election, and that the fake news media and the deep state are trying to topple this last chance to Make America Great Again, wouldn’t these stories about the media and the FBI seem to confirm your worst fears, suspicions, and impulses?
That’s why this is so damaging. It confirms the worst impressions that a lot of people already have and plays right into Trump’s ability to spin the facts.
it’s important for citizens to believe journalists are fairly reporting the news, it’s even more important for us to believe that government and law enforcement are unbiased brokers who simply follow the law. According to Gallup, institutions like the police and the military are trusted more than the media or the president.
Americans once trusted institutions and elites. Part of the reason Trump was able to win was that faith in these institutions had already begun to erode. And frankly, part of the reason that happened is that—as we are witnessing with ABC News and the FBI—these elites and institutions have betrayed our trust.
It’s vital for America to have strong institutions, but Donald Trump wasn’t wrong when he cast them as corrupt and impotent. As dangerous as it is for us to live in a sort of post-truth world where citizens don’t believe final arbiters of truth, a lot of conservatives are coming to a startling conclusion: It isn’t paranoid if they really are trying to take you down.