There are two Mueller probes. There‚Äôs the one that exists in the Fox News-addled mind of President Donald Trump and his supporters, which features dark conspiracy-mongering about a ‚ÄúDeep State coup‚ÄĚ against Trump; out-of-control federal agents jackbooting poor, hapless Trump allies; and, of course, the corrupt failure to prosecute Hillary Clinton.
Then there‚Äôs the one that exists in most mainstream news accounts, which features a team of investigators mostly going by the book, never leaking, methodically following the facts, albeit very aggressively, wherever they will lead.
The gaping disconnect between these two Mueller probes is driven home by two new pieces: one from New York magazine, which reports alarming new details about Trump‚Äôs addiction to Fox News and how that has shaped his perception of the Mueller investigation; and one from The Post, which paints a detailed picture of how the probe has actually been operating day in and day out.
The New York magazine piece reports that former White House advisers Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus sought to deliberately drive Trump deeper into the Fox News bubble, because he was getting overly agitated by criticism on MSNBC and CNN. They did this by talking up Fox‚Äôs high ratings and importance to Trump‚Äôs base until Trump‚Äôs television diet became, as one former official put it, ‚Äúmainly a complete dosage of Fox.‚ÄĚ
But this has created its own alarming problems, officials now say. Fox gets Trump riled up about topics that weren‚Äôt supposed to be on that day‚Äôs agenda, forcing White House staff to scramble to refocus. And Trump‚Äôs addiction to Sean Hannity - who has become a kind of walking security blanket for the president - is having a deep impression on his view of the Mueller investigation:
‚ÄúRegardless of the news of the day, the overarching narrative of the show is the political persecution of Trump, and by extension of Hannity and Hannity‚Äôs viewers, at the hands of the so-called deep state and the Democratic Party, and the corrupt mainstream media, a wholly owned subsidiary of both. Everything comes back to . . . Mueller‚Äôs investigation into Russia‚Äôs involvement in the 2016 election, a phony, petty diversion from what should be the real focus: prosecuting Hillary Clinton.‚ÄĚ
Now over to The Post‚Äôs new piece. The big takeaway is that the Mueller probe, as the piece puts it, is ‚Äúsecretive and methodical,‚ÄĚ a ‚Äústeaming locomotive‚ÄĚ that is racking up indictments and guilty pleas - the real action in the background, even as Hannity hallucinates about the Deep State and Rudy Giuliani rails about Mueller‚Äôs ‚Äústormtroopers‚ÄĚ while pummeling himself about the face with seemingly endless rake-stepping. Note this:
‚ÄúThe biggest challenge for the White House is that the special counsel is conducting an investigation properly, which is not commenting publicly, only making known its activities by virtue of bringing cases or executing legal process in a manner that is publicly observable,‚ÄĚ said Jacob Frenkel, who worked in the independent counsel‚Äôs office in the late 1990s.
This is indeed the big challenge for the White House - in more ways than one.
The general buttoned-down nature of the investigation, and the lack of leaks and other visible antics, have probably made it harder for Trump and his allies to discredit the probe, which is likely why large majorities - including independents - support the investigation of both collusion and of Trump‚Äôs finances (even if large majorities of Republicans still think it‚Äôs a witch hunt).
The other big challenge this creates for Trump and his outside allies is that it‚Äôs impossible to know what Mueller has discovered. He is investigating multiple actions by Trump that could constitute obstruction of justice. The Post also reports that the Mueller team is probing the relationship between former Trump confidant Roger Stone and Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, which leaked the hacked Democratic Party emails.
On top of that, the Atlantic‚Äôs Natasha Bertrand reports that Mueller‚Äôs agents ‚Äúallegedly detained a lawyer with ties to Russia who is closely associated with Joseph Mifsud, the shadowy professor who claimed during the election that Russia had ‚Äėdirt‚Äô on Hillary Clinton.‚ÄĚ (This claim was made to former Trump aide George Papadopoulos, whose activities formed the real genesis of the Mueller probe, despite #Foxlandia‚Äôs founding myth to the contrary.) As Bertrand notes, this highlights Mueller‚Äôs ongoing interest in ‚Äúwhether the campaign knew in advance that Russia planned to interfere in the election.‚ÄĚ
All of this confirms once again - as did the leaked Mueller questions - that it is utter folly to assume we have any idea of the extent of what Mueller has established on whether there was a Russia-Trump campaign conspiracy to sabotage our democracy, or, for that matter, on anything else.
Yet the gap between the real Mueller probe and the one that exists in #Foxlandia - and, as a result, in Trump‚Äôs head - has never been wider.
Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant - what you might call ‚Äúopinionated reporting‚ÄĚ from the left.