Early Returns

Firing Mueller and Shades of Nixon

Jonathan Bernstein's morning links.

Over at the Plum Line, Greg Sargent has an interesting conversation with historian Julian Zelizer about Watergate and the current Trump-Russia investigation. They make the important point that the entire mass-audience Republican-aligned media -- Fox News, the talk shows and the rest -- simply didn't exist during Richard Nixon's presidency, and think about what effect the difference would make if Donald Trump does fire special prosecutor Robert Mueller.

Certainly, Fox News and the others have been working hard to erode trust in Mueller, in his investigation, in the FBI, in the Justice Department and in the courts. 

Whether it's effective is harder to say. It gets back in some ways to the arguments about a theoretical high floor to presidential approval ratings in the current highly partisan era. However, there's very little evidence to support that theoretical high floor. Conservative media failed to rescue George W. Bush during his second term, when he slumped to approval ratings as low as any president's in the polling era (just as liberal media failed to prevent him from breaking record highs in his first term). Barack Obama's approval ratings did stay in a relatively narrow range. Trump, however, crashed through Obama's low point back in the spring, and he is currently more than 10 percentage points below any president this far into his first term. We can't prove that Trump's floor is any lower than what we've seen so far. But it certainly seems likely that there's at least some room for further erosion. 

What this suggests is Republican-aligned media doesn't turn viewers, listeners and readers into mindless zombies. That's confirmed by a simple glance at election results over the last two decades; there's simply no massive shift toward Republicans despite the growth of this sector -- quite the opposite, at least at the presidential level. While some research has found Fox News effects on voting can be real, the effects are relatively small -- big enough, in some studies, to potentially change the results of close elections, but not big enough to turn an unpopular president into a popular one. 

If Trump did attempt to shut down the investigation, the main function of Fox News wouldn't be to make that move popular; it would likely be to inform those inclined to support this president no matter what of some reasons he was right and everyone else was wrong. That would include, no doubt, some Republican politicians. But most Republican politicians would seek some sort of middle ground, perhaps agreeing (without evidence) that Mueller was corrupt but still supporting a continued investigation. That seemed true months ago, but it would be even more the case given that the special prosecutor has produced indictments, plea deals and more. Jeff Flake took to Twitter on Monday to reiterate his support for Mueller, and Majority Whip John Cornyn supported Mueller, too. 

Indeed, while Republican politicians certainly have defended Trump, that's nothing new; most Republican politicians defended Richard Nixon in 1973 before the Saturday Night Massacre (in which he fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox) and resumed supporting him once a replacement for Cox was named. They supported him well into 1974. Except for the moments when it appeared that Nixon was unilaterally stopping the investigation -- that created a firestorm in which practically no one rushed to his side. I think the odds are fairly strong that the same thing would happen today, notwithstanding whatever Sean Hannity and others said about it.

The biggest danger isn't so much that conservative media would let Trump get away with it. The biggest danger is that they could goad him into believing he could get away with it. But that's a whole different problem. 

1. Jeremy Konyndyk at the Monkey Cage on the death toll in Puerto Rico, and why so many died after Hurricane Maria. 

2. Also at the Monkey Cage: Jennifer Pribble and Juan Pablo Luna on the election in Chile

3. An experts' roundup of the technical flaws and loopholes in the tax bill.

4. Harry Enten on the question of whether passing the tax bill will help Republicans in November

5. Fred Kaplan on the new National Security Strategy

6. And Ed Kilgore on Trump congratulating himself for a year of Republican electoral debacles.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

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    Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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