Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was indicted on Monday as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Predictably, Washington, D.C., and the media that tracks it reacted enthusiastically to the announcement, looking at all the angles to see what this might mean for Donald Trump and his presidency.
Democrats, and some Republicans, reacted with a giddiness, as if this were the appetizer at their favorite restaurant with a main course and dessert yet to come. Other Republicans that weren’t as thrilled about the news seemed to dismiss it as Officer Barbrady would on “South Park” by proclaiming, “Move along people, there’s nothing to see here.”
What’s likely going on with these indictments is a Mueller effort to put the squeeze on Manafort and his associate, Rick Gates. The end goal: to get them to give something up on Trump.
Recall that back in June, Mueller announced the addition of Andrew Weissmann — the former head of the United States Justice Department’s criminal fraud section — to his investigation team. Before joining Mueller’s probe, Weissmann’s claim to fame was the role he played in prosecuting New York City organized crime in the 1990s and the Enron scandal in the 2000s. Both of those prosecutions relied on flipping witnesses. What is happening in this Russia probe is likely similar to those investigations.
Meanwhile, we should expect this to captivate the news cycle for the time being. The airwaves will be filled with breathless anticipation of the next shoe to drop and dimestore opinions from anyone willing to go on television and declare the pending disastrous end of the Trump presidency.
In the meantime, as we await the apparently expected fall of Trump, does any of this matter politically? Imagine how a conversation might go if someone was trying to sway a 2016 Trump voter who isn’t quite as locked in to the blow-by-blow of the news.
“First indictments brought down in the Trump-Russia probe. You best rethink your support!”
“Why? What was Trump indicted for?”
“Well, Trump wasn’t indicted. But an associate of his was — his former campaign manager!”
“Oh, so his former campaign manager was colluding with the Russians.”
“Well, no. He allegedly committed tax fraud a decade ago and failed to register as an agent of a foreign government.”
“What does this have to do with Trump?”
“It doesn’t matter! Trump bad!”
Once you get to steps four and five of that conversation, you are already losing the interest of our short attention-span electorate. And chances are, if it is one of the diehard variety of Trump supporters, you could have had “Trump was found guilty” and that person would have already dismissed it as some left-wing conspiracy wasting the precious time needed to get America back on the right track.
Essentially the vast majority of people who vote have already made up their minds, and all of this is just background noise.
The Mueller soap opera is just the complicated Washington political game being played. Most of the public just blows it off as uninteresting. Polling shows only 37 percent of Americans can name their congressman and just 43 percent can name a Supreme Court Justice.
Likely, an even smaller fraction of people could tell you who Robert Mueller or Paul Manafort are.
The hope for some Democrats is that this plays out like Watergate. It won’t be the crime of collusion (for which there is still no publicly available evidence), but the cover-up of the alleged crime. Create enough smoke and uncertainty about the bet voters made on Trump in 2016 and perhaps they will reverse course at the ballot box next time.
The country is still a year away from the first meaningful national election since Trump’s inauguration. It would not be unprecedented for the opposition party to retake Congress in the midterm election following a presidential election. However, Democrats have not pulled off retaking Congress after a Republican election since Dwight Eisenhower’s first term in 1954.
The reason for that is the Democrats had already controlled Congress after a Republican-winning presidential election. The exception came in 2002 with President George W. Bush, whose party managed to retain control of Congress after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Regaining control of Congress after losing a presidential election two years prior is a scenario for which the Democratic Party does not have a winning playbook.
The other problem the Democratic Party faces is that while the demographics seem to be moving in its favor, Democrats do not turn out for midterm elections like Republicans do.
The obvious question is, what do you do to get Democrats to come out and vote in a midterm election? Or how about, how do you get to make a Trump voter a Democratic Party convert in 2018? It’s not going to be by harping on an indictment of Paul Manafort with complicated circumstances.
While this is a good weapon for Democrats to have in their arsenal, it’s not a silver bullet. There is still a lot of work to be done for Democrats to regain a foothold in Washington, D.C.