The Trump Administration’s Use of ‘Kompromat’ to Undermine Mueller

Over the weekend, concern that Trump will fire special prosecutor Robert Mueller intensified. It wasn’t confined to the pundit class. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) said, “The rumor on the Hill when I left [Thursday] was that the president was going to make a significant speech at the end of next week, and on Dec. 22 when we are out of DC, he was going to fire Robert Mueller.”

It might be that members of Congress have some inside knowledge about what is going on. But most of the speculation in the media came from a growing chorus of Republican legislators saying things like this:

The attacks on Mueller, his investigation, and the FBI more generally have reached fever pitch, both among Republicans and the right wing media. Here are some of the headlines of Fox News right now:

“Gregg Jarrett: ‘The Mueller investigation is illegitimate and corrupt'”
“‘Wipe out this team and start over’: Pam Bondi on Mueller probe”
“Sessions must quit if he can’t end politicization of intelligence”
“Was the FBI weaponized to take down the Trump presidency?”

Subtle, huh? One high point was when Jesse Watters went on a rant about the text messages of FBI agents that ended with this:

The investigation into Donald Trump’s campaign has been crooked from the jump. But the scary part is we may have proof the investigation was weaponized to destroy his presidency for partisan political purposes and to disenfranchise millions of American voters. If that’s true, we have a coup on our hands in America.

As Watters went on to interview Kellyanne Conway, who was standing in front of the White House, take a look at the chyron.

Brian Stelter has an interesting breakdown of “How Fox News and President Trump create an anti-Muller ‘feedback loop.'”

The right-wing commentary and President Trump’s criticism of the FBI are part of a vicious circle. The TV hosts encourage Trump, then Trump supplies sound bites for their shows, and then the hosts are even more emboldened.

But I think he misses a key starting point for the loop. Keep in mind that the coordinated attacks on the FBI started back in October with a tweet from the president.

The text messages Watters railed about were leaked to the media by someone in the administration. We can now add to that the right wing media’s furor about how Mueller obtained tens of thousands of emails from the Trump transition team. That news surfaced when Trump’s lawyers sent a letter complaining about it not to Mueller, but to Congress, where it was subsequently leaked to Fox News. In other words, this is yet another effort to discredit Mueller that originated with the Trump administration (specifically via his legal team).

What Stelter missed is that the “feedback loop” has consistently been initiated by the White House and fed via other sources (usually involving Rep. Devin Nunes) to the media, where Fox News runs with it. That raises the question of whether the Trump administration will actually fire Mueller. As Mike Allen explains, their attempts at “muddying Mueller” seem to be working.

President Trump said yesterday “No, I’m not” when asked if he’s considering firing Special Counsel Bob Mueller. Truth is, his high-level Republican allies don’t think he will need to.

Be smart: The Trump lawyers’ strategy is to cooperate with Mueller on the inside game. The outside chorus tries to rough up Mueller, in case his findings are trouble for POTUS.

The rising conservative drumbeat to discredit the investigation and the investigators is gaining GOP converts.

You might wonder, “who is being converted?” The strategy is certainly working with Fox News viewers. More importantly, it seems to be working with those Republican legislators who are picking up the accusations. But beyond that, they don’t necessarily have to actually convince anyone. I would remind you that, after the release of the Steele dossier, Amanda Taub told us that our understanding of Russian kompromat is usually too narrow.

In fact, kompromat is more than an individual piece of damaging information: It is a broader attempt to manufacture public cynicism and confusion in ways that target not just one individual but an entire society.

And although this practice tends to be associated with Russia…it is a common feature of authoritarian and semiauthoritarian nations around the world.

Specific leaks may take aim at powerful individuals, but in the longer term, kompromat serves the interests of the powerful, which is why it is often a tool of autocrats. By eroding the very idea of a shared reality, and by spreading apathy and confusion among a public that learns to distrust leaders and institutions alike, kompromat undermines a society’s ability to hold the powerful to account and ensure the proper functioning of government.

Trump might not need to fire Mueller in order to reach his objective. The goal is to create confusion, heighten distrust and undermine our ability to hold the powerful to account. The people responsible for this strategy learned their lessons from Putin very well.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.