WASHINGTON — The recently completed season of Showtime’s “The Circus” ended with the episode “Their Brand Is Crisis,” delving into how President Trump and the White House are coping with the protracted Russia investigation — which is to say, they’re attacking its credibility.
Mark McKinnon, co-host of “The Circus” along with Alex Wagner and John Heilemann, tells Variety that the context for Trump’s constant attacks on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation as a “witch hunt” have a lot to do with making sure that the president can maintain a political advantage, particularly if Democrats win back control of the House.
“If there is a Democratic House, which is certainly a possibility, and Bob Mueller lays out something, it doesn’t matter what that something is, I guarantee Democrats are going to move to impeach,” McKinnon says. “So Donald Trump knows in the long range, what he needs is a Clinton strategy to make sure that the Senate doesn’t move to impeach him. So he needs seventeen Republican senators to make sure they don’t go with the Democrats. So this is really a long-range political strategy so that if he doesn’t have a legal alternative when Mueller lays out his findings, he’s got a political backup, and I think that is what this is all about.”
Given the length and extent of Mueller’s investigation, McKinnon thinks “he is going to find something. I don’t know what it is.”
The ongoing investigation certainly adds an aura of additional drama to the show’s third season, during what has proven to be an unpredictable presidency. The show’s ratings are up double digits over the first two seasons, and its second week had 1.3 million viewers, a series high, according to Showtime.
McKinnon says that it due in part to interest in this presidency, “whether you are for him or against him or somewhere in between.”
A challenge has been establishing each week’s narrative arc, given the fast-changing news environment yet the need for the show to stand out as an ultra-timely docuseries.
“One thing I learned from Hollywood is how important a storyline thematic is for every episode,” McKinnon says, adding that “with this presidency that is very difficult.”
Luck helps. The series kicked off the first season by traveling to Moscow, where McKinnon chatted with U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman on the same day that the Kremlin kicked out 60 diplomats in retaliation to U.S. measures.
As it turned out, an array of other storylines that week were Russia related, including Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before congressional committees and Trump’s decision to order airstrikes on Syria in response to another chemical weapons attack on the civilian population there. One of the highlights of the episode was an interview that Heilemann did with Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry.
In one clip that was not included in the episode, Heilemann mentioned Trump’s election to the presidency, and Zakharova blurted out, “Thank God.”
“She sort of let her defenses down when she said that and John said, ‘Did you just say, ‘Thank God’? She dissembled very quickly,” McKinnon says. “It was very clear she didn’t mean to say it out loud.”
McKinnon says that the trip to Russia was “pretty chilling” — which is underscored by the title of the episode, “The Looking Glass War.”
“If you want to see where ‘fake news’ started, go to Russia,” he says.
The next part of the third season, to start in the fall, will spotlight the midterms, but McKinnon says that he isn’t so sure the this is the year of a blue wave. The Democrats will face a president presiding over a healthy economy and low unemployment and, as we saw this week, a revival of talks with North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un.
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Benjamin Crump talks about his new TV One series “Evidence of Innocence,” which profiles former convicts released from prison after proving that they were innocent. He says that he hopes that the show will send a message to prospective jurors about the problems that racial minorities and poor people face in the criminal justice system.
Note: McKinnon’s quote was corrected to reflect that he said that 17 votes in the Senate would be needed to prevent impeachment, not seven.
“PopPolitics,” hosted by Variety’s Ted Johnson, airs from 2-3 p.m. ET/11 a.m.-noon PT on SiriusXM’s political channel POTUS. It also is available on demand.