Can Donald Trump pull off a split-screen presidency?
With the amped-up Mueller investigation again dominating the news, the president wants to ensure that other issues—from tax cuts to immigration—aren’t drowned out by the pounding drumbeat of investigative stories.
That was a technique pioneered by Bill Clinton, who tried to stir interest in even minor initiatives—from school uniforms to television V-chips—while he was being impeached over the sex-and-lies Monica Lewinsky scandal. And it worked in the sense that Clinton’s approval ratings remained relatively high as many Americans concluded they cared more about what he was doing for them than his moral failings.
Trump faces a more difficult path. He faces a media establishment more staunchly opposed to his style and his agenda, even though there was plenty of media disgust about Clinton’s affair with a White House intern. And while Ken Starr’s office had its share of leaks, Robert Mueller’s operation seems to be sharing the fruits of its investigation on almost a daily basis.
The recent cascade of leaks to the New York Times, Washington Post and CNN has kept the White House on the defensive—and crowded out much of the other news, especially on prime-time cable.
It’s hard for slow-motion Senate negotiations on something called Graham-Cassidy or discussions on an undisclosed tax plan to compete with scandalous revelations. The president’s challenge is to counter the drip-drip-drip of scandal stories that are flooding the media landscape, especially on pocketbook issues.
Unlike Bill Clinton, of course, he’s got Twitter.
The headlines on the Russia probe have been erupting at a dizzying pace. Paul Manafort told he’s likely to be indicted. Manafort twice wiretapped by federal authorities—were any conversations with Trump picked up? Manafort offered to give a Russian billionaire private briefings during the campaign. Manafort spoke of cashing in on his position as campaign chief to pay off his debts.
And White House officials confirmed in stories yesterday that Mueller has asked for documents on such sensitive topics as Trump’s firing of James Comey and Michael Flynn, and his discussion of classified information at a meeting with two Russian diplomats. The prosecutor also wants records of any Trump discussions on handling a New York Times inquiry on his son’s meeting with a Russian lawyer offering dirt on Hillary Clinton.
Some of the material may be leaking from the congressional panels investigating possible collusion with Russia, but Muller’s operation appears to be the main source—with the disclosures aimed at ratcheting up public pressure on Manafort. It is, of course, illegal to leak details of a criminal investigation.
Trump has no choice but to fight back against the investigation he has denounced as a witch hunt. But it would be risky for him to let Mueller utterly overshadow his agenda.