This week delivered one of the greatest examples in modern political history of the importance of framing.
The Mueller report into the 2016 election landed, and it is being widely interpreted as more or less “exoneration” for US President Donald Trump. He was not charged with collusion with Russia.
As the MAGA hats are tossed repeatedly skyward, darkening the sun, it is helpful to recall what Mueller actually did.
- He indicted 34 people, including Donald Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
- He laid over 200 criminal charges. Five people have been sentenced to prison so far.
- He found and presented evidence that the 2016 election was tainted by Russian meddling, including through social media and email hacking.
- He handed over multiple inquiries to federal and state law enforcement bodies who are continuing to investigate.
- And he deliberately left open the question of whether the president had engaged in obstruction of justice.
This is being claimed as a win a Trump?! Such is the power of framing.
In any other context a report that sums up how Russians influenced a presidential election in his favour would be bad news for the sitting president.
But the framing of the issue over the last two years means the conclusion of the Mueller report helped Trump. Collusion was the prize and all other outcomes would be judged a failure.
What’s going on here?
This is a specific kind of cognitive bias called anchoring bias. Anchoring bias applies when a piece of information presented early on affects everything that follows. It is why people adept at bargaining start with a low offer, rather than a reasonable price. The early information frames the whole process thereafter.
Mueller was appointed to investigate collusion between Trump and Russia. So the narrative goes. From then on any finding short of collusion would be deemed judged a failure. But Mueller’s official remit was not so narrowly defined as in the popular imagination.
When Trump’s presidency was just four months old, Mueller was appointed to conduct “a full and thorough investigation of the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election,” according to the letter that appointed Mueller Special Counsel. The same letter included several sub points. The first mentioned links or coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign. The other subpoints gave Mueller broad license to investigate other matters he discovered as they arose.
Mueller availed himself of the freedom to investigate matters beyond collusion. But it was on collusion that the narrative became stuck.
What’s Trump’s role in this?
Trump himself was central to making collusion the central narrative. From the very beginning, he vehemently denied collusion.
This helped establish the game. Note that Trump never claimed he did nothing wrong. He never claimed his campaign was staffed with angels. Had he done so the debate may have been framed differently and he may be being judged more harshly now. Instead he helped make the whole investigation about the hardest point to prove — collusion with Russia. And it was especially tough to prove because Mueller had to meet standards of evidence that were suitable for a criminal case.
What did we learn?
The lesson to take from the giddy excitement of trump supporters is the power of managing the framing of an issue. The authoritative work on the topic is the book Don’t Think of an Elephant by US political scientist George Lakoff. It argues creating the frame in which an issue is discussed is vital. You can see framing everywhere in politics, but a very simple example is in the debate over abortion rights. Pro-life and pro-choice are asymmetrical concepts because each side is eager to wrestle the framing onto their terms. Nobody wants to be anti-choice or anti-life.
Framing is also why politicians don’t answer questions in the way journalists ask. They ignore the framing in the question and instead put their own frame on it.
The framing of the Mueller report means Trump is able to claim this report — despite its damning conclusions — as a victory. His tweets are in all capitals and delirious with glee.
So it is worth remembering the big picture. Trump won an election tainted by foreign bias. Trump is in some ways Russia’s gift to America. Trump may not have asked for that to happen — or at least there may not be sufficient proof that he asked for it to happen — but that doesn’t mean the election was legitimate. In the long run, one result of the Mueller investigation may be to put an asterisk next to Trump’s name in the history books.
It is also certain that the story is not over. If and when the Mueller report is made public far more will spill out and investigations may be taken up by bodies — including intelligence agencies –_ that have capacities Mueller lacked. The frame is now shifting. Trump’s troubles are far from over.