What happens if the feds decline to prosecute Attorney General John Swallow?
Reports are swirling that could happen any day now, and it would be an important development in the ongoing investigations into Utah’s beleaguered Attorney General.
It’s true that no federal charges won't mean the numerous other proceedings against Swallow will go away, but most Utahns may not make that distinction. It will be an important PR win for him. And, in politics, public perception is as important as oxygen...maybe more so.
If and when that news is made public, expect Swallow and his lawyers to come out guns blazing - screaming about his innocence. The charm offensive from his team will be massive and relentless. There will be a limited window for Swallow to take advantage of a rare positive story about him, and I expect him to milk it for all it’s worth.
A lack of federal involvement will allow Swallow to run with a “why is everybody picking on me” story. For the more politically astute Utahns, that refrain won’t hold water. But, for the majority of residents who aren’t paying much attention to the story, it could be a game changer. It allows him to say the media is on a witch hunt (a message he’s hinted at before), plus it makes him a more sympathetic figure.
This is the kind of thing that can turn public opinion. No, it won’t be a total makeover of Swallow’s reputation - he’s not exactly a boy scout - but it will make many wonder what the big deal really is. That plays directly into Swallow’s hands.
He can fight back against any new negative news story with a convenient “why are we still doing this? I’ve already been cleared by the feds” answer. He can highlight the resources being used to investigate him, painting them as a waste. Mostly, he will be able to say the ongoing investigations are hurting his ability to do his job - and he doesn’t understand why we are continuing down this road.
No federal charges could cut the fledgling House investigation off at the knees - at least when it comes to public perception. It will embolden those in the House who think the probe is a waste of time and money. Groups that support Swallow, like the Utah Eagle Forum, will seize on the news and add their voices to the mix.
Swallow’s accusers will be relegated to making the “yes, but” argument about his guilt.
Question: “Did the feds decide to leave John Swallow alone?”
Answer: “Yes, but there’s still a lot of stuff to investigate.”
Most Utahns will stop listening at “yes.”
What do you think is easier to comprehend? “We still need to investigate John Swallow for this, that and the other thing,” or “No feds.” My money is on the simpler message.
Public perception is a big deal in politics, and it doesn’t take much to shape a narrative. Remember Al Gore invented the internet, John Kerry was a flip-flopper and George W. Bush wasn’t too bright. Those are simplistic ways to look at political figures, but simple usually wins out over complex.
If the feds step away from John Swallow, the simple narrative for him will be “this is a witch hunt.”
A decision not to prosecute could muddy the waters of the John Swallow situation just enough to let him slip through the net and continue downstream.