The greatest political spy drama of the age has been playing out daily for 12 months, with the former FBI chief Robert Mueller at its centre and an audience of millions around the world playing amateur detective.
Mueller, appointed special counsel to investigate Russian interference in the 2015 election, has spent the last year diligently pursuing a complex web of money and influence – or, as Trump would have it, engaging in a “$10,000,000 witch-hunt”.
Did Donald Trump win the White House aided by Russia’s hidden hand? What does the steely special counsel know? And as his inquiry into alleged collusion enters its second year today, when will he deliver?
Mueller’s investigation has already yielded charges against four Trump associates and, while he has not spoken publicly, the charges testify to the scope of the investigation.
So far Mueller has brought charges or reached plea agreements against 19 people and three Russian entities. Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, campaign aide Rick Gates and former foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos have entered plea deals. Ex-election campaign chairman Paul Manafort has pleaded not guilty to charges of money laundering, tax fraud, failure to register as a foreign agent and other charges.
As the investigation encircles Trump, some of his family, his closest friends and White House officials have been questioned by Mueller’s team.
Meanwhile, as the inquiry has expanded and dominated the news agenda over the last year, the real issues of people’s lives are in danger of being drowned out by obsessive cable television coverage of the Russia investigation.
From leading columnists to frontline politicians, people are grappling with how to create space to talk about something other than Mueller.
Kyle Pope, editor and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review, said while print and digital news media have mostly done a good job of lifting their gaze, cable news has struggled to escape a constant daily focus on Mueller and the Trump scandal.
“The Mueller investigation really boils down the partisan approach of cable news,” he said, with MSNBC on the left and conservative Fox News on the right.
“My own reading is that both sides are losing credibility – you can only tell me so many times that this is the beginning of the end and it not happen for me to start turning it off. And you can only dismiss things as nonsense so many times without me realising, ‘well you’re not paying attention to anything’.”
He said: “I do think there is too much reactivity. The outrage meter is broken. The calibration of it is all messed up. Little things cause people to go crazy. Things I think are much bigger and more important seem to pass unnoticed.”
Crucial issues are ignored in a breathless television news cycle that seems incapable of going after more than one subject at a time.
Latest cable news audience figures from Nielsen suggest some evidence of what Pope calls audience ‘burnout’.
Fox News is still number one in US cable news, but prime-time viewers have slipped 13% in the first quarter of 2018 compared with the peak first three months of the Trump presidency when the channel set records. CNN, which has begun to break the habit of always carrying entire Trump speeches live, is also down 17% in prime time. By contrast, the Trump obsession burns strong for viewers of the liberal-leaning MSNBC – at 1.85m viewers, it is smaller than Fox, but up by 30% year-on-year.
While CNN, Fox News and MSNBC viewers stagger from one Trump scandal to the next, America’s deep social challenges may have been overlooked in the past year, but they have emphatically not gone away.
Teachers – vilified for years by conservative politicians – have gone on strike, highlighting stagnant wages and impoverished schools.
Tax cuts have been rammed through by Trump and Republicans in Congress for the benefit of corporations and the wealthiest Americans – including himself and his inner circle while the Fight for 15 continues to campaign against longer hours and low pay for millions of workers.
The Rev Dr William Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign has been on the march across the country for months, highlighting inequality and honouring the unfinished work of Dr Martin Luther King 50 years on.
Life expectancy fell in America, with a 21% increase in overdose deaths from legal and illegal opioids a key driver. Unions are coming under attack in the courts and from conservative groups in all 50 states.
An almost daily litany of cases reveals a justice system marred at every stage by inherent racial bias.
Pope said: “I don’t turn on cable news and say, ‘Hey, I wonder what happened in the world’. It’s more like what happened today in the Mueller investigation … they have almost just embraced the idea that it’s the Robert Mueller show and that’s it.
“I want to know about our crumbling cities, I want to know about race, I want to know about drug addiction, I want to know about schools. I live in New York and all of these things are very real and happening right now.”
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof conceded in a recent article that like most Americans, he was addicted to the daily Trump minutiae. “In America today, it’s all Trump, all the time. We’re collectively addicted to him. The non-stop scandals and outrages suck us in; they amount to Trump porn.”
The challenge for politicians trying to raise issues more relevant to people’s everyday lives is that they struggle to compete with the garish appeal of Trump. Jessica Post, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee told the Daily Beast, she was dropped at the last moment three times from an MSNBC show as Trump news broke.
“It’s difficult to break through with stories about teachers’ strikes or assaults on voting rights because there’s a new bad thing that Trump has done or Scott Pruitt has done in every news cycle,” Post told the Daily Beast.
For some politicians struggling to change the subject, the answer has been to establish their own platforms and even stage their own events – Bernie Sanders has led the way, creating a Facebook account which is followed by more than 7 million people, where audiences of more than 1 million have tuned in for livestreams of town hall events covering issues such as income inequality and the movement for government-funded healthcare for all.
For campaigners trying to keep their issues alive, the challenge is how to reach and galvanise local activists while the news cycle is dominated by Trump drama.
Elizabeth Beaver, associate policy director for Indivisible, the organisation set up by former congressional staffers to cultivate a grassroots network opposed to the Trump agenda, said: “It shouldn’t be the choice between do we talk about the Mueller investigation and the constant scandals of the Trump administration versus talk about the issues that affect everyone’s lives. We should be ‘both/and’ and should never be either/or.”
Indivisible tries to “poke holes in the Trump agenda” by alerting its network of 6,000 local groups to votes and issues unfolding in Congress that week, where they can put pressure on politicians through phone calls, events outside of their member of Congress’s offices and by showing up to town halls.
She praised some media outlets, but said: “I would like to continue to see coverage that reflects the things that are happening in the US Congress that will affect us all for generations to come. Quite often, that will happen simultaneously with the scandals of the day from the Trump administration.
“The viewers can walk and chew gum at the same time, so I think that they expect the networks to do the same.”