The week before the high-profile, high-stakes testimony of former FBI Director James Comey, I got into a spat with conservative lawyer (and Trump loyalist) Jay Sekulow on CNN.
Sekulow wasn’t happy with me for pointing out that he “came here tonight with a mission to begin discrediting James Comey.”
“I think this is a harbinger of things to come,” I predicted. And I was right. Since our tiff, Sekulow has gone on Fox News to declare that Comey is “not a credible witness, and he's discussing his testimony with the special counsel."
Kellyanne Conway confirmed my prediction a couple of days later when she said of Comey, “Most of Washington, of course many of the Democrats, detested this man until Donald Trump fired him…”
It’s clear that we are witnessing a concerted effort to undermine the credibility of a guy who, yes, made some mistakes—but who also appears to be an honorable public servant.
President Donald Trump seems hell-bent on attacking Comey. The reason, of course, is because it works.
When you can’t argue the facts, attack the messenger.
To understand how ideas can be undermined (in this instance, the notion that Donald Trump might have obstructed justice), you first must grasp the anatomy of an effective message.
Years ago, a political strategist named Mark Montini invented an effective method to teach political candidates how to develop a persuasive message. Montini’s equation, M=EC3, stated that “message equals emotion x contrast x connection x credibility.” An effective message must include each ingredient, but the most important ingredient is credibility. Without credibility, nothing else matters.
This lesson (I worked with Montini for two years at The Leadership Institute) occurred to me recently when Team Trump began attempting to destroy Comey’s reputation. It won’t matter what he says if nobody believes him.
We’ve seen this “destroy the messenger” strategy before. While attacking an accuser, shifting blame, and refusing to be accountable is utterly Trumpian, he hardly invented this technique.
We need only look to the (Bill) Clinton years. “If you drag a hundred-dollar bill through a trailer park, you never know what you’ll find,” Bill Clinton advisor James Carville famously said of Paula Jones.
Before General David Petraeus testified before the House of Representatives in 2007, he was greeted by a full-page New York Times ad with the headline, “General Petraeus or General Betray Us?”
After Joe Wurzelbacher (aka Joe The Plumber) started campaigning for John McCain in 2008, it was revealed that he wasn’t actually be a licensed plumber—an allegation that reminded me of the revelation that the fisherman who plucked Elian Gonzalez from the Atlantic wasn’t really a fisherman.
The Republican Party recently attempted to attack the credibility of the Congressional Budget Office after it issued a less-than-flattering report on their health care bill.
Trump’s strategy of attack for James Comey seems to be to label him a D.C. insider and a showboat (borrowing from Trump’s own comments about Comey to NBC’s Lester Holt)—at least, according to the TV ads that are being run by a pro-Trump group called the Great America Alliance.
According to the AP, the RNC is also raising questions about Comey, noting in one email that he "needs to answer a simple question about his conversations with President Trump: If you were so concerned, why didn't you act on it or notify Congress?"
It’s possible this strategy could backfire. “Comey has notes, memos, evidence. Trump has invective, grievances and conspiracy theories,” says Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and former advisor to Bill Clinton.
A recent survey shows that the public doesn’t trust Comey or Trump—which (aside from being a sad commentary on the state of our politics) is good news for Trump. Just as in a trial, Trump doesn’t need people to love him, he just needs to create a shadow of doubt about Comey—to impeach the reputation of this hostile witness.
The attacks on Comey are meant to muddy the waters—to have you conclude that there are no good guys in white hats here. It would be a sad denouement for a guy who has prided himself on doing the right thing. Nobody gets out of politics unscathed these days. Not even the last boy scout.