President Trump and conservative talk show hosts like Sean Hannity have criticized Robert Mueller's investigation as a "witch hunt" over the past 13 months. And as John Oliver argued on Sunday's Last Week Tonight, they're working like lawyers in a high-profile trial, peddling conspiracy theories to sway the jury of public opinion toward discrediting – and ultimately ending – the inquiry. In other words, the comedian said, they've all gone "full O.J. [Simpson]."
"These tactics have worked in the past – quite famously, in fact," he said. "Think about it: A sociopathic, misogynist millionaire evolved from celebrity to undeserving folk hero suddenly has evidence piling up that he may have done something terrible and he puts the whole system on trial. If that sounds familiar at all to you, it's because it's basically the story of O.J. all over again.
"Now what does it mean to go 'full O.J.'?" he continued. "Well, in one sense, it means to murder two people. But it also means to sway a jury by building a wild, implausible conspiracy that the system is corrupted. The reason that Hannity throws out so many theories may well be that he knows if he can discredit any part of Mueller's investigation, he can convince people that the whole thing is a total sham. And that is the same angle that O.J.'s lawyers took."
This technique, as Oliver noted, is working. In July 2017, a Monmouth University poll found that 62 percent of responders felt the Russia investigation should continue, but that number dropped to 54 percent by April 2018. "That is troubling because remember Trump has considered shutting the investigation down before," the host said. "And if that number keeps dropping, he may well feel empowered to try and actually do it."
A crucial element of this anti-Mueller pushback has involved the infamous "witch hunt" label, which itself is bizarre considering that, over the past year, the investigation has yielded criminal charges against 20 people and three companies, including five guilty pleas. "If this is a 'witch hunt,'" Oliver said, "witches exist."
But that catchphrase is one of only several techniques that the Trump/Hannity crew are using to "actively undermine" the investigation. One part of the process is to "redefine" the investigation as a whole. Many conservative talking heads have argued that there's no evidence of collusion, so why not shut it down? But it's important to remember that Mueller was not tasked with finding "collusion" – he's exploring "any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump," as well as "any matters that arose may arise directly from the investigation."
Another crucial tactic – and a favorite of Hannity's – is "whataboutism," which Oliver described as "the practice of shifting the debate to someone else's wrongdoing."
"Hannnity's point is that other people did bad things, so Trump's bad things don't count," he said. "Look, let me be clear on this: Whether someone else did something shitty has no bearing over whether you did something shitty. If that were true, every movie that got a bad review could simply say, 'What about From Justin to Kelly?' and the critic would be legally required to give their movie five stars."
Hannity, Oliver noted, also loves to build counter-narratives – spreading wild conspiracy theories about various plots to undermine Trump's presidency. The political commentator has often quipped that the Mueller investigation "witch hunt" "makes Watergate look like stealing a Snicker's bar."
And a recent Hannity/Trump favorite is "Spygate," the inaccurate claim that the FBI planted a mole in the Trump campaign. In reality, as the New York Times reported, the Bureau "sent an informant to talk to two campaign advisers "[who] had suspicious contacts linked to Russia" – in other words, it did its job. "The headline 'FBI Investigates Possible Crime' is like the headline 'Domino's Delivers Pizza' or 'Harley-Davidson Sells Mid-Life Crisismobile to Local Dad.'" Oliver cracked. "No kidding – that's their whole reason for existence."
The comedian argued that, no matter how much evidence works against their wild narrative, the anti-Mueller camp is stuck in its stance. Oliver cut to a telling Hannity where the host admitted, "By the way, the media, if you have more proof that this is not a witch hunt, OK, I don't believe you."
"Look, we could pick apart conspiracies all night," Oliver said. "But there's really, at the end of the day, no point because there will always be another rabbit hole ... But creating rabbit holes is kind of the point here because I would argue that Hannity, Trump and all the rest aren't really interested in getting to the bottom of any of these questions. They're just trying to sow enough doubt that this number dips far enough below 50 percent to enable the whole investigation to be shut down. They are just working the jury."
And these tactics, he noted, are "depressively effective."
"I'm not saying that Trump is guilty – we honestly don't know," Oliver said, concluding with another O.J. Simpson reference. "But even if Mueller's investigation doesn't conclude that Trump personally colluded with the Russians, that doesn't mean the whole thing was a witch hunt or a waste of time. The process of finding out is really important, and it needs to be seen through to its conclusion. And my fear right now is that we are headed in a direction where, even if Mueller comes back with irrefutable evidence, Trump could just pardon himself and put out a book called 'If I Did It,' and a very large portion of the country would fucking buy it."