The United States are still seeing a lot of discussion about the Trump campaign and possible collusion with Russia. There is a reason why coverage on the story has increased recently: last month, the Special Counsel investigation, led by former FBI Director Robert Mueller, hit its one-year anniversary. While the jury is out on the socially appropriate gift for such an occasion, President Trump seems to feel the gift of words is the most appropriate. He has accused the investigation of being politically motivated “fake news” and a witch hunt. Recently, new adjectives emerged when President Trump tweeted that the investigation is a “hoax,” a “setup,” and a “trap.” This deft use of a thesaurus and overall antagonism is a clear attempt to create a zero-sum game for the public with the investigation and Trump on either end. The White House seems to believe that this puts them in a strong position, but is the American public approaching the issue as a binary choice or is there more nuance?
Before answering this question, a recap of the Special Counsel investigation over the past year is in order.
On October 5, 2017, former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos pled guilty to making false statements to the FBI about the contact he had with agents of the Russian government while working for the campaign. He began cooperating with investigators.
On October 30, 2017, Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort surrendered to the FBI. Manafort was charged with conspiracy against the United States, conspiracy to launder money, failure to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts, being an unregistered agent of foreign principal, and false and misleading FARA statements. He pled not guilty and is under 24-hour GPS-monitored house arrest.
On December 1, 2017, former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn pled guilty to “willfully and knowingly” making “false, fictitious and fraudulent statements” to the FBI. He began cooperating with investigators.
In total, as of June 1, 2018, the Special Counsel has publicly initiated criminal proceedings against 19 people — five U.S. nationals, 13 Russian nationals, and one Dutch national — and three Russian organisations. Five guilty pleas have been secured: Papadopoulos, Flynn, political consultant Richard Gates, private citizen Richard Pinedo, and Dutch attorney Alex van der Zwaan. Trump has been made a “subject” of the investigation, meaning his conduct is being looked at, but not for criminal charges.
Given the above, calling the investigation a “witch hunt!” seems like a stretch, and the American public appears to agree. Indeed, a near majority of Americans (47%) support the Special Counsel investigation and feel it should continue without interference, while just 19% believe it to be a partisan witch hunt. At the same time, 15% are undecided about their stance on the issue, and 18% feel that the investigation should soon be put to an end.
Unsurprisingly, the data indicates that views on this issue are partisan in nature. A clear majority of Democrats (76%) support continuing the Special Counsel investigation without interference while only 3% believe the investigation is a witch hunt. Republicans, on the other hand, are split. A plurality (38%) do believe the investigation is a witch hunt, 27% support the investigation continuing without interference, and 25% believe the investigation has gone on long enough and should be wrapped up in the near future. It is important to note that while the latter option is not necessarily in support of the Special Counsel investigation, it belies the President’s implicit stance that the investigation is corrupt. Independents are more closely aligned with Democrats, with the plurality supporting the investigation’s continuation without interference (36%), the majority agreeing with its legitimacy (27% for 2nd option), and only 13% believing the investigation is a witch hunt.
As has been discussed in the past, education, ethnicity, and gender are strong indicators of openness to right-wing populist ideas, both in the United States and in Europe. The data proves this to be true once more. According to the survey, a significant portion of white males (28%) and non-college educated men (29%) agree with the President’s stance that the investigation is a witch hunt. In contrast, very few people of colour agree with Trump (6%). However, even in demographic groups most favorable to Trump, the majority is not with him on this issue. 43% of white males and 43% of non-college educated men believe the investigation should continue without interference. Women, regardless of education and ethnicity, overwhelmingly side with keeping up the investigation without interference.
All this being said, one would think that the ongoing investigation, in combination with the data, would point to the conclusion that Trump should be taking a hit in his favorability ratings. That, however, has not been the case. This same survey showed 42% of Americans having a favourable opinion of the President. This is nine points higher than the rating for the Republican Party and matches that of the Democratic Party. In fact, Trump’s numbers are higher than any other elected official tested. And for comparison, Robert Mueller is at a 40% favourable rating.
Meanwhile, it is possible that people favour the President but don’t approve of the job he is doing. Instead of the usual choice of ‘approve’ or ‘disapprove’, the survey gives people the option of rating what the President has done and separately evaluating how he has gone about it.
Overall, 46% of Americans disapprove of both what the President has done and how he has gone about it, while just 28% of respondents approve of Trump’s actions as well as his approach. That’s almost a 20-point advantage to those holding a negative view. However, 19% approve of what he’s done so far but not how he has gone about it. That means there is an even split between those who disapprove of everything the President does, and those who approve at some level. To put that in perspective, 47% is the level of approval the investigation-free Obama White House had thus far into the term. These are comparing slightly different scales, though focusing only on Trump’s job approval yields 41%, which is just 6-points lower than where Obama was at the same point in his first term.
Naturally, Republicans are lifting the President’s approval ratings with 56% supporting Trump on both fronts and another 31% approving of what he has done in office alone. Unexpectedly, college-educated and non-college educated men hold similar views, approving of what Trump has done and how he has gone about it with 32% and 33% respectively. Not shockingly, white voters also have higher-than-average ratings of the President with a third (33%) approving of his performance on both fronts and another 23% at least approving of what he’s done so far.
What does all this mean? On one hand, President Trump’s defiant and arguably disruptive defence of his campaign’s actions during the 2016 elections is not shifting the public’s perception to his favour. People still see the investigation as a legitimate means to rectify democratic concerns over foreign interference. However, this failure has not impacted Trump’s favorability or approval. It has become clear that the President operates under different rules, and his treatment of the Special Counsel’s investigation is just another example. His accusations of politically motivated corruption harken to the distrust many have of the “establishment,” allowing him to continue marketing himself as the people’s President at war with elitists, including Mueller. It is a zero-sum game and the President continues to survive despite the ongoing investigation.
(All data in this article comes from a national survey of 1,000 residents of the United States over the age of 18. The survey was conducted by Lincoln Park Strategies and the data was collected from April 20 – 24 and weighted to ensure proportional results. The Bayesian confidence level for 1,000 interviews is 3.5, which is roughly equivalent to a margin of error of ±3.1 at the 95% confidence level)
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