Richard Levick, Chairman and CEO, LEVICK
Divining the various communications strategies of the principals enmeshed in any complex litigation is never easy. The Mueller investigation will be difficult for anyone in its path, but the communications strategy for most is going to be direct. For all but the ultimate targets, the truth shall set them free – but only if they’re the first to tell it.
But things just got more convoluted now that the first indictments have been unsealed and a surprise conviction secured. Seriously, did anyone around a water cooler anywhere in America have 30-year-old George Papadopoulos as the first to cop a plea? I suspect he’ll be far from the last surprise as Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team unspool a wide-ranging and multifaceted case.
Here’s a quick primer outlining the key principals’ communications strategies.
- For Special Counsel Mueller, he doesn’t talk out of school and appears averse to leaking. As has always been his way, his team will continue doggedly pursuing the facts, wherever those facts may lead. His prosecuting will be done in courtrooms, not broadcast studios. Indictments will be sealed until they’re not. The Mueller dragnet may extend far deeper than originally believed. If he was trying to send an early message to targets and potential targets with the announcement of the Papadopoulos plea, then “Mission accomplished, sir.” A lot of Trump campaign officials have already lawyered up. At best, this is going to be a terrible distraction. At worst, it will involve the specter of orange jumpsuits.
- For President Trump and his legal team, it’s to buttress their “3-D-B” strategy: deny, delay, distract – and blame others. The White House has been pushing diversionary stories about the Clinton connections to Russia and finding ready audiences on right-wing radio, Fox News, and other Rupert Murdoch-owned outlets. But the diversions may not stick much longer, especially since the President’s political base is shrinking and he has little political capital to spend. The Murdoch sons – James and Lachlan – seem less likely to give this president a free pass. Given the White House’s bumpy relationship with the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill, made all the worse over the past few weeks, how much longer can House and Senate leaders afford to defend Trump if Mueller’s investigation continues to swirl and escalate? Remember all those nasty tweets the President issued to Majority Leader McConnell and Speaker Ryan? He may wish he could take them back. The White House will need more effective go-to-spokespeople. When the discredited Chris Christie is your lead defensive voice, you are in trouble.
- For targets and potential targets of the prosecution, it’s to remember to what and to whom they owe their allegiance. It’s a short list, and it begins with country, family, and self, and ends – maybe – with party and, lastly, the president. See “Papadopoulos, George.” As we learn more about the twists and turns of the Mueller investigation, I suspect White House officials are going to find out they’re not at the top of people’s loyalty lists.
Anyone who says they know with certitude where the Mueller prosecution is heading and what will happen when it gets there is fibbing. We’re not even at the one-mile mark of what is likely to be a marathon investigation. We may still be searching for the finish line a year from now.
I do know this. Among the dozen charges faced by former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates is “conspiracy against the United States.” This isn’t your run-of-the-mill charge of bribery or financial malfeasance or a business partnership gone sour – the legal challenges to which seasoned fans of Washington intrigue are accustomed.
More to the point, this isn’t President Grant or President Harding letting their cronies get out of hand and making illicit money off federal property. This isn’t even President Nixon lying about Watergate.
No, this saga smacks of conspiring with a hostile foreign power whose express goal is to destabilize America as a superpower and pervert our democratic institutions. If that’s not treason, it’s dangerously close to it.
If Mueller continues building his case – if the steady drip, drip, drip of his revelations becomes a tsunami – no communications strategy will save his ultimate targets from drowning. For everyone else, the best advice is to cooperate and get out of the way.