Because so many of us got it wrong in 2016, we often tend to reflexively tell ourselves that President Trump must be working some kind of hidden magic over public opinion that we’re all missing. One place this constantly manifests itself is with special counsel Robert S. Mueller’s III’s investigation: If Mueller’s approval falls a few points, a throng of pundits and hand-wringing liberals rushes forth to tell us that Trump is “winning” his battle with Mueller.
But what if public opinion about Trump and the Russia probe is a lot simpler than we think? What if the story is that large majorities think Trump is probably guilty of some sort of wrongdoing; believe that Mueller’s investigation is legitimately in keeping with the rule of law and is pursuing matters that are important to the public interest; want Trump to face questioning over these matters; don’t like Trump’s constant attacks on the investigation; and believe Trump has been trying to interfere with the probe and has been steadily lying about it all along?
This morning, Trump is once again raging at Mueller on Twitter, calling for his probe to be shut down. Uh-oh. His base will march in lockstep with him on this, and that’s all that matters! He’s flooding the media zone!! We are doomed to helplessness while his mighty social media presence mesmerizes the electorate!!! He’s winning!!!!
Except … no, he isn’t. A new CNN poll finds:
- Only 34 percent of Americans approve of Trump’s handling of the Russia investigation, vs. 55 percent who disapprove.
- 58 percent say this is a serious matter that should be investigated, vs. only 37 percent who think it’s mainly an effort to discredit Trump.
- 56 percent say Trump has interfered with the investigation, vs. only 38 percent who say he has not.
- Only 37 percent say the things Trump has said publicly about the investigation are true, vs. 56 percent who say they are false.
- 70 percent say Trump should testify to Mueller, vs. only 25 percent who say he should not.
- 57 percent say Trump knew about contacts between his campaign operatives and Russians, vs. only 36 percent who say he did not.
Trump is losing every single public argument about the Mueller probe. His latest, in a tweet citing Judicial Watch, is that the firing of former FBI agent Peter Strzok, who authored texts critical of Trump, shows that the “fundamental underpinnings of the investigation were corrupt.” This is a lie: The inspector general’s report into all this actually found that the FBI decision not to prosecute Hillary Clinton was untainted by bias or politics, completely laying waste to Trump’s narrative. Regardless, this is only the latest in a long string of things that was supposed to “give Trump fodder” to disqualify the investigation, to use that deeply misleading and self-reinforcing journalistic cliche.
But the fodder is failing, and so are all his lies. Only small minorities believe the probe is a witch hunt; think he hasn’t interfered in it; believe he’s telling the truth about these matters; and don’t think he should testify. And those minorities are largely dominated by Republicans: In all these cases, independents — who matter in midterms — are tilted against him, a trend that other polls have also demonstrated.
It is often suggested that all Trump has to do to “win” is keep his base behind him against Mueller. The idea is supposed to be that this will ensure that House Republicans won’t impeach Trump. But House Republicans are almost certainly never going to impeach Trump, no matter what Mueller finds. The only way Trump will be held accountable, should those findings be very serious, is if Democrats take back the House.
And so, what will matter for accountability purposes is whether Trump’s lies about the Mueller probe are enough to prevent a Democratic takeover. And on this score, the CNN poll is notable: The college-educated white voters who will be so important this fall tilt heavily against Trump: 60 percent say the Russia affair is serious and should be investigated; 61 percent say Trump interfered in the investigation; and 58 percent say he has been lying about it.
Non-college-educated whites, by contrast, side with Trump on these things (though far more narrowly than you might think). Indeed, it’s worth asking whether the Mueller investigation constitutes another matter in what David French calls the “great white culture war.” It’s plausible that college-educated whites see Trump’s handling of the Mueller probe as part of his broader degradation of our democracy and institutions, and see this as very troubling, in a manner that non-college-educated whites (perhaps believing that our system has failed them, thus making them responsive to Trump in the first place) do not.
It is often also suggested that Trump’s attacks on the Mueller probe work by galvanizing his base, which could help keep the House in GOP hands. But here, too, the CNN poll is instructive: While large majorities of Republican voters say the Mueller probe will be important to them this fall, similarly large majorities of Democrats say the same.
I’m not claiming the Mueller probe will necessarily give a big lift to Democratic efforts to take the House. My view is that Trump’s handling of it is part of a broader story about Trumpian self-dealing and corruption and his reliance on the House GOP to shield him from accountability and allow him to act with impunity on many fronts. And the precise impact of the Russia story as part of that broader narrative is hard to gauge.
But there is no evidence Trump’s lies are likely to give the GOP a boost in keeping the House. The Russia story is probably hurting Republicans more than it is helping. Which means that on this score, Trump isn’t “winning” at all.