Team Trump’s 2020 strategy is Clinton Cash all over again

Giuliani Secret Empires

Citation Ceci Freed / Media Matters | Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons

Rudy Giuliani, President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, has signaled the line of attack that Trump and his political and media allies will take over the next several months to try to damage Trump’s Democratic opponent, whomever that may be. The strategy’s success depends on the help of a compliant press.

Fox News published a lengthy piece of stenography overnight that unskeptically channels an unnamed senior Trump administration official’s effort to pre-spin the pending release of a whistleblower complaint. The complaint reportedly alleges in part that Trump pressed the president of Ukraine in a phone conversation to open an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. After credulously promoting the official’s smear of the whistleblower and argument that the call included only a “few words” that are controversial, Fox News reported: 

Just after midnight Wednesday, Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani -- who has long publicly called for Ukraine to investigate Biden’s dealings in Ukraine -- posted a series of messages on Twitter suggesting Democrats have a bigger problem on their hands.

“Democrat party is covering up a pattern of corruption involving high level members of the Obama cabinet,” Giuliani wrote. “The multi-million and billion dollar pay-for-play is mind boggling. Biden Family sale of office to Ukraine was not the only one or the most egregious. Slimy Joe is not alone.”

In his tweets, Giuliani went on to levy allegations against Biden, former Secretary of State John Kerry’s stepson, and “notorious mobster Whitey Bulger’s nephew.” 

To the layperson, Giuliani’s reference to the latter two figures is quite incoherent, even if clearly aimed at painting a picture of institutional corruption on the part of the Democratic Party. But Giuliani is actually reciting details from conservative activist Peter Schweizer’s 2018 book Secret Empires: How the American Political Class Hides Corruption and Enriches Family and Friends, signaling that the Trump apparatus plans to put that book at the heart of its campaign strategy.

Schweizer is a Breitbart senior editor at large and president of the right-wing think tank Government Accountability Institute. Both organizations have been heavily funded by the pro-Trump billionaire Mercer family and were previously headed by former Trump campaign and White House official Steve Bannon. Schweizer’s shoddy but influential 2015 book, Clinton Cash, used distortions and fabrications to make the case in the lead-up to the 2016 election that Bill and Hillary Clinton’s financial and philanthropic dealings rendered her unfit for the presidency. Right-wing and mainstream news outlets widely cited the book, and Trump referenced its discredited allegations on the campaign trail.

In recent days, veterans of the 2016 Clinton campaign have said that the attacks on Biden appear eerily familiar. That’s because they come from the same source: Schweizer, who again has published a book in the lead-up to the presidential election with the hope of creating a fog of corruption around the Democrats. 

The attack differs in one key detail: its distribution strategy. Clinton Cash’s release relied on Bannon’s strategy of trying to “weaponize” the story by filtering it directly through the pages of major mainstream outlets. Several outlets, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, “made exclusive agreements” with Schweizer, receiving chapters of the book they could read and report out prior to its publication. Crucially, even when the resulting articles indicated that aspects of the story didn’t hold up, they still helped give the allegations oxygen. 

For whatever reason, that strategy wasn’t used with Secret Empires, which landed with little fanfare even in right-wing circles upon publication. Instead, Giuliani is the key vector for its claims. In interviews, television appearances, and on Twitter, he is citing allegations from Schweizer’s book in order to try to push it into the mainstream.

Giuliani’s efforts to promote Schweizer’s argument that Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine posed a conflict of interest for his father spiraled out of his control. Giuliani’s contention (not made by Schweizer) that Joe Biden had pressed the Ukrainian government to fire a top prosecutor because that prosecutor was investigating a company linked to his son was disproved. And the attempts Giuliani and Trump made to influence Ukraine to investigate the Bidens triggered a massive scandal. But Giuliani has said he is nonetheless happy with the result because it has pushed the media to talk about the Biden/Ukraine story. 

Looking at the 2016 election cycle, one can easily imagine how the next months will play out. Giuliani will continue to dribble out details from Schweizer’s book, working in additional inferences and data points he’s gathered. He will become Fox News’ assignment editor and a frequent presence on its airwaves. The network’s “news” team will rush to chronicle and flesh out his allegations, providing fodder for its “opinion” hosts, who will use the results to denounce on a nightly basis the entire Democratic Party as crooked. Fox personalities will pressure the Democratic candidates to respond to Giuliani’s allegations and will lash out at the mainstream press for not giving his distortions credulous treatment. Trump himself will join in, live-tweeting segments from the network’s coverage that catch his eye and incorporating the spin into his rallies and other public events. The Republican Party’s political apparatus and politicians and other conservative media outlets will join in, finding easy unity in a message of Democratic corruption. We may even see Senate hearings or a Justice Department probe

Of course, the suggestion that this president is deeply concerned with public corruption in general -- and corruption related to the family members of a politician in particular -- is ludicrous. The foundation of Trump’s fortune is dodgy tax schemes; his sons manage his company, the Trump Organization, which provides an unending stream of opportunities for the U.S. and foreign governments to pour money into all of their pockets; the brand of his daughter, who works in his White House, keeps getting trademarks approved in China. Indeed, the publication materials for Secret Empires explicitly use the Trump family’s unique position to set up a “whatabout,” claiming that “President Donald Trump’s children have made front pages across the world for their dicey transactions” while the media has devoted less attention to the associates of Democrats.

All of this will put the press to the test. In 2016, coverage of the Clinton Foundation based on Schweizer’s book helped create the impression of a miasma of corruption around Hillary Clinton. This false balance aided Trump’s effort to downplay his far more substantial malfeasance and helped push him to victory. Have journalists learned anything from that experience?

Giuliani is hoping that they haven’t.