Here’s an example. On Feb. 5, Trump spoke with Fox News host Bill O’Reilly. After the president reiterated his respect for Putin, O’Reilly interjected, “He’s a killer, though. Putin’s a killer.” To which Trump responded, “What do you think, our country’s so innocent?”
This softer line on Russia is out of step not only with GOP elites, but also with overall American views.
Americans remain largely unfavorable toward Putin and Russia.
That’s been true since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. A Jan. 20-25 Quinnipiac University survey found that only 9 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Vladimir Putin, while 70 percent are unfavorable. And a Dec. 16-18 Chicago Council Survey (CCS) shows that American attitudes toward Russia have fallen to new lows after U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russia hacked into the emails of both the DNC and the RNC.
Even well before Michael Flynn’s resignation as national security adviser and revelations that Trump’s campaign aides were in contact with Russian intelligence officers, a majority of Americans disapproved of the way Trump has responded to the issue of Russian hacking (54 percent disapprove, 35 percent approve).
And three separate surveys conducted between Jan. 12 and 25 found that majorities of Americans believe that Russia interfered in the U.S. elections (between 51 percent and 64 percent, depending upon the polling organization and question wording).
The new special relationship: U.S. and Russia?
Many interpreted Trump’s Feb. 5 comments to O’Reilly as suggesting a moral equivalence between Russia and the United States, which a range of Republican political leaders were quick to condemn. On the Sunday news shows, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Sen. Ben Sasse (Neb.) bristled, while Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) tweeted their discomfort with Trump’s comments.
But everyday Republicans disagree with the party elite.
As other pollsters have discovered, self-described Republicans are now more positive than Democrats toward Russia and Putin. And a majority of Republicans think that the Russian government did not interfere in the U.S. elections and oppose further investigations into the hack, contrasting sharply with the majority view among Democrats and independents.
This is where public opinion among self-described Republicans is closer to views in Russia than among their fellow Americans: A recent January Levada Center survey found that 7 in 10 Russians doubt that their government interfered in the U.S. election (12 percent Russia definitely/probably interfered, 72 percent probably/definitely did not).
In addition, while Democrats say that Trump is being too friendly toward Russia (68 percent), only 15 percent of Republicans agree (ABC News/Washington Post). Republicans are more likely to say that Trump has about the right attitude toward Russia (75 percent vs. 11 percent Democrats).
Russians have noticed the change. They have grown more favorable toward the United States since Trump’s election (from 28 percent just before to 37 percent in a Jan. 20-23 poll). Almost half (46 percent) expect that relations between Russia and the United States will improve with Trump in the White House. And 42 percent of Russians volunteer that Trump’s inauguration ceremony was the most memorable event of January, more so than the assassination of the Russian ambassador in Turkey and Fidel Castro’s death.
Ordinary Republicans say they don’t believe Russia hacked the U.S. election
Before the 2016 presidential campaign, a computer hack against the United States would have alarmed people of all parties. A February 2016 Gallup survey found large majorities of both Democrats (72 percent) and Republicans (77 percent) rated cyberterrorism — “the use of computers to cause disruption or fear in society” — as a critical threat facing the nation, ranking just below terrorism and Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. In a 2016 non-probability, opt-in ReportLinker survey of 513 online respondents, 53 percent agreed that “Russia is the biggest cyberattack threat to the United States.”
Moreover, in 2014 and 2015 CCS surveys, Republicans consistently felt more threat from Russia than Democrats, and were more likely to favor taking military actions to defend Ukraine from Russia. And on the question of Iran’s nuclear program and reducing the world’s nuclear stockpiles, slightly larger majorities of Republicans than Democrats said that Russia was working in a different (vs. same) direction than the United States, the 2016 CCS found.
All that was before Trump was elected president.
Perhaps Republicans have a lack of confidence in the intelligence agencies’ conclusions. Or perhaps ordinary Republicans are taking political cues from Trump rather than from traditional Republican hawks such as Rubio and John McCain. Or perhaps Republicans think that whatever hurts the Democrats has to be good for Republicans, even cyber-interference.
Meanwhile, Trump’s equivocal positions toward Russia, including on the possibility of lifting sanctions, already appear to have consequences. Fighting has escalated in eastern Ukraine with unconfirmed reports of new armor from Russia arriving to rebel-held areas. Russia has deployed cruise missiles, violating a major arms control treaty; had its jets buzz a U.S. aircraft carrier; and sent Russian spy ships patrolling the U.S. East Coast.
With each sentence of praise for Putin or hints about lifting sanctions, Trump weakens any U.S. bargaining position toward Russia on Ukraine, Syria, nuclear disarmament and so on. No wonder Russians are more optimistic now than they have been since the government annexed Crimea.
Dina Smeltz is a senior fellow in public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Lily Wojtowicz, an intern at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, also contributed to this report.