HOW TRUMP WON THE PR WAR OVER THE MUELLER REPORT
By: Eric Schroeck, Senior Vice President, Public Affairs & Content
Attorney General William Barr set off a political firestorm three weeks ago when he released a brief summary of the Mueller report that basically said the special counsel had cleared President Trump of any wrongdoing. On Thursday morning, the Justice Department will finally release a redacted version of the full report, giving the public a chance to gauge whether Barr accurately summarized its findings – or spun them to protect Trump.
But here’s the thing: Even if the report contains damaging information about Trump, Democrats will probably be unable to use it to score political points because of how quickly and effectively the Trump administration and its allies in the conservative media framed Barr’s findings as a win for the president.
Democrats were at a disadvantage from the start because Barr was the only person to see the entire report and decide what would be made public, and when. That left Democrats unable to prepare a game plan, forcing them to scramble once the attorney general released his summary. The upshot is that Trump will almost certainly have the upper hand in the public relations war over the investigation regardless of what’s in the actual report.
That isn’t simply one of the first potentially big wins for the White House’s beleaguered communications shop. Instead, it also highlights an important lesson for corporate America: Media narratives solidify fast and can be almost impossible to turn around once they’ve taken hold.
It’s a dynamic that transcends politics. Any company, industry, or organization in the public eye must understand the importance of defining itself or a specific issue before the media or others do it for them. That means anticipating potential scenarios; developing plans for any potential political, regulatory, or reputational challenges that might occur; and taking action to frame the narrative if and when they do.
Indeed, Barr’s handling of the Mueller report serves as a roadmap of sorts for how to get ahead of a potentially damaging story and instead use it for your own advantage – especially when you have access to information that your opponents don’t.
Mueller’s two-year investigation resulted in the conviction of Trump’s campaign manager, national security adviser, and an array of other campaign staffers (at least one case, against Trump confidant Roger Stone, is set to get underway this fall in federal court). It found clear evidence of Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 election, and revealed that several senior Trump campaign staffers – including both his son and his son-in-law – seemed willing to accept help from Moscow. And it showed that Trump and his aides had consistently given false or misleading accounts of their interactions with Russia.
None of that stopped Trump from immediately using Barr’s summary to say, falsely, that Mueller had completely cleared him (the special counsel had, in fact, explicitly said he wasn’t exonerating Trump of obstruction of justice).
The president’s Republican allies on Capitol Hill also quickly began using Barr’s summary of the Mueller report, an albatross for Trump for nearly two years, as a cudgel against Trump’s political opponents. It is a stunning turnaround, made possible because of a media narrative that took root based solely on a brief summary of Mueller’s report by Trump’s own attorney general – not the actual report itself.
Barr had released his four-page summary of Mueller’s findings on an otherwise quiet Sunday afternoon in late March. The attorney general said that Mueller had concluded that while Russia interfered in the 2016 election, the Trump campaign was not connected to that effort. Barr also wrote that Mueller hadn’t rendered a judgement about obstruction of justice.
Trump and his team quickly pounced. In a 4:13 pm tweet, just hours after Barr released his summary, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said that the findings were a “total and complete exoneration” of the president. A half-hour later, Trump tweeted, “No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION.”
In a flash, major media outlets ran with a similar narrative: that Mueller’s report had cleared Trump and his campaign of wrongdoing. As the Associated Press noted in a piece headlined, “Media quick to declare Trump as Mueller’s winner,” the New York Times and the Washington Post both ran with top-of-the-website headlines highlighting Barr’s claim that Mueller had found no Russian collusion. Both the Times and CNN asserted that a “cloud” had been lifted over Trump. MSNBC’s Al Sharpton declared that Barr’s letter amounted to a “clear victory for [Trump], legally and politically.”
Democrats clearly were caught flat-footed and without a coordinated response. By the time they settled a “no exoneration” rallying cry, the story was baked. As CNN’s Dana Bash said, it would “not be easy” for Democratic leadership to reclaim the narrative. Trump and his allies pounded a simple message from the beginning, and the media followed – giving Team Trump its first real communications victory since his election.
Trump’s ability to snatch a public relations victory from the jaws of defeat holds valuable lessons for corporate America, and for his Democratic opponents. If Democrats have learned anything from their initial stumbles, they’ve likely spent the past few weeks preparing for the eventual release of the full Mueller report and gaming out every possible scenario and message that can help them reclaim the narrative. Whether it’s too late to do so is another story.