The Mueller Report Fuels a World of Witch Hunts

Why you should care

Because world leaders will use America’s experience against their own internal foes.

Clasping hands with the American president on Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accepted a diplomatic favor from Donald Trump — U.S. recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over Golan Heights, a disputed region in the Levant — with a peck on the cheek. “Israel has never had a better friend than you,” Netanyahu told Trump. Netanyahu was speaking for himself as well. The greater gift for Netanyahu, at least politically, was one that came up during a press conference after their meeting, when a reporter asked Trump about special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, which concluded that Trump’s campaign did not collude with Russian interference efforts in the 2016 election. 

The reprieve boosts a growing breed of world leaders like Netanyahu leading established democracies who have taken to claiming — like the American president — that the criticism they face is spurred by a “witch hunt.” From Israel to India, Brazil to Botswana and Mexico to Turkey, these leaders are well entrenched in power yet are nevertheless looking to fortify themselves domestically by painting their critics as clubby insiders, the “establishment” or representatives of the “deep state” out to get them: the very argument that marked Trump’s undermining of the Mueller report before it was finished.

There is a knock-on effect that encourages countries in other parts of the world to suppress checks and balances.

Arch Puddington, distinguished fellow for democracy studies, Freedom House

Trump’s strengthened witch hunt narrative gives these leaders — some newly elected, others in power for several years — ammunition to double down on their rhetoric by pointing to the world’s most powerful democracy as an example, say experts. And that shift, from deference to democratic checks and balances and institutions such as the press, an opposition, the judiciary and bureaucracy, to a disdain for them, could have implications for the future of global democracy itself, at a time some of these nations, such as India and Israel, face key elections. 

“There is a knock-on effect that encourages countries in other parts of the world to suppress checks and balances, politicize corruption scandals and accuse people who are bringing up allegations of acting in bad faith,” says Arch Puddington, a distinguished fellow for democracy studies at the watchdog organization Freedom House. 

Begin in India, the world’s largest democracy, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi has consistently pitched himself as an outsider — a tea seller challenging the “dynasty” led by the Nehru-Gandhi family that has ruled the country for most of the post-independence era. Faced with questions over his five-year rule, Modi and his team have portrayed criticism as the establishment’s attempt at wresting back power.

His junior foreign minister has referred to journalists as “presstitutes,” while Modi himself called them “news traders” in 2014. When India’s government statistics agency showed unemployment at a 45-year-high earlier this year, the Modi administration simply refused to publish the report: The statisticians had ignored “nontraditional” signs of employment growth, they argued. Questions about a $7.8 billion defense deal with France that benefited a private Indian firm with no relevant experience were similarly explained away as the outcries of those used to kickbacks from previous deals. The prime minister insists the banding together of opposition political parties to oppose him in India’s April elections is evidence of an establishment lying in wait to ambush him. 

“The sheer scale of the antipathy shown toward Modi cannot be explained by his governance record,” says Swapan Dasgupta, one of India’s most respected conservative ideologues and a member of Parliament from Modi’s party, the BJP. “This antipathy springs, rather, from the determination of the erstwhile establishment to reclaim its old clout and influence from the counter-establishment that has taken shape under Modi.”

Note the similarities of Dasgupta’s argument to that used by Eli Hazan, the foreign affairs director for Israel’s ruling Likud Party, in defending Netanyahu, who faces multiple indictments on corruption charges — filed by his own attorney general — ahead of the country’s April elections. “We believe there’s a selective enforcement against Netanyahu,” Hazan told OZY in early March. “Politicians in the past did the same things, and nobody investigated, nobody continued with it.” Netanyahu has called the investigations against him a “witch hunt.”

Although President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been in power in Turkey since 2003 — as a prime minister earlier — he still portrays threats to his rule as engineered by deep-state saboteurs. After a failed coup attempt in 2017, his government arrested 4,000 judges and thousands of government employees and journalists.

But the sentiment is not confined to those who have held power for a long time. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, facing allegations ranging from encouraging extrajudicial killings to familial corruption, has been in power for less than three months. “I continue to be the victim of a campaign aimed at displacing the government of Jair Bolsonaro,” his son, Flavio, who is under investigation, tweeted in late January.

In Botswana, Africa’s longest-continuous democracy, new President Mokgweetsi Masisi has indicated he doesn’t trust the deep state in the country — even though a single party has ruled the country since independence. He is in the middle of a joust for power with his predecessor, Ian Khama, and earlier this year removed the country’s intelligence chief — whom Khama had appointed — with an officer whom Khama had removed. And in Mexico, newly elected President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has signaled that he sees the country’s technocrats, who have wielded significant power for more than three decades, as a threat. His government has systematically targeted salaries, perks and other work benefits for bureaucrats — leading to an exodus of officers from the federal government to states.

The irony is that while the Mueller report’s partial exoneration of Trump will readily be used to boost claims of witch hunts across the globe, the investigation outcome is equally evident to the contrary. Otherwise, the president would now be burning at the proverbial stake. “What the conclusions prove is that Trump’s witch hunt accusations were not valid,” Puddington says, with Mueller’s methods neither “cowed by the criticism of the president” nor “influenced by the calls of the Democratic opposition to be more aggressive.” 

Certainly, not all of these democracies have iron-clad pasts of strong checks and balances. The Mexican judicial system remains a nightmare, while Turkey fell 10 spots on the latest democracy index to 110th place (of 176) as the country “consolidated amid weakening checks on the presidency,” as the 2018 Economist Intelligence Unit report noted. And decrying investigations as politically motivated witch hunts is “nothing new” in the U.S., as Puddington notes, with everything from Watergate to the Iran-Contra scandal and the Monica Lewinsky affair lining up along partisan sides. 

What is new is that “strongmen around the world are doing well, sort of ‘on the march’ and some of the conclusions from the Mueller report will be more fodder for them to simply ignore accusations of corruption or misconduct,” Puddington adds. Mueller’s public (and politicized) findings will echo through the world’s democracies in this coming election season — and, perhaps, far past it. 

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