Robert S. Mueller III, left, and President Trump. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images; Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
Opinion writer

The headline grabber in the ongoing Russia investigation was the reckless decision by Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign chairman, to allegedly lie to prosecutors, thereby shredding his plea deal with prosecutors. The Post reports: “The apparent collapse of Manafort’s cooperation agreement is the latest stunning turnaround in his case, exposing the longtime Republican consultant to more than a decade behind bars after pleading guilty in September on charges of cheating the Internal Revenue Service, violating foreign lobbying laws and attempting to obstruct justice.”

Why he would try to get away with this — and whether a plea deal has been dangled — will be the source of much speculation but, in the larger scheme of things, something more consequential may be going on.

President Trump’s strategy for confronting special counsel Robert S. Mueller III seems to rest on two premises: Trump’s problem is political, not legal (i.e., Mueller won’t seek to indict a sitting president), and he will survive so long as he has Republicans in his corner, whipped up by his smears and hyperbolic rhetoric. We don’t yet know about the former, but the latter is highly questionable if you believe a new poll conducted by Hart Research for the nonpartisan group Law Works.

The poll, conducted after the midterm election, found that 76 percent of voters say Mueller should be allowed to finish his work. While there are differences by party, Trump should be alarmed to find large bipartisan majorities standing up for Mueller:

Majorities of Democrats (94%), independents (78%), and Republicans (55%) say that Mueller should be allowed to complete his investigation. In this regard:

— 83% of voters, including 68% of Republicans, agree that “it would be an abuse of power for Donald Trump to try to stop an ongoing investigation of him and his campaign because no one is above the law, not even the president.” Fifty-nine percent strongly agree.

— 82% of voters, including 66% of Republicans, agree that “Robert Mueller should be allowed to finish his investigation and follow the facts wherever they lead, because everyone must abide by the rule of law, even the president.” Fifty-eight percent strongly agree.

Even though they think the investigation is biased (as a vast majority of Republicans do), large majorities of Republicans want the investigation completed.

The public also rejects the idea the final report could be withheld: “Nationally, 90% of voters, including 82% of Republicans, say Robert Mueller’s report on the findings of his investigation should be made public and available for the average person. Seventy-four percent of voters, including half of Republicans, say President Trump should not be allowed to decide on his own to withhold certain portions of the report from the public.”

In addition, after being told about acting attorney general Matthew G. Whitaker’s background, “only 29% say Whitaker should be in charge of overseeing the Mueller investigation as the acting attorney general, while 54% say he should not take part in overseeing the investigation.”

While most Republicans oppose charging Trump with a crime, they do register a high degree of concern about the potential findings. “The greatest causes for concern among Republican voters would be if members of the Trump family engaged in illegal activities with the Russians prior to the 2016 campaign (46%) and if Donald Trump tried to obstruct law enforcement officials . . . (45%).”

There are several points worth emphasizing here.

First, the midterm elections dealt a blow to Trump and his Republican supporters, and now Gallup has Trump’s approval rating down to 38 percent, to go with a 60-percent disapproval rating, a new high. Perhaps Republicans aren’t so inclined to back the president to the hilt now that he’s become a weight around the necks of GOP candidates. If his approval rating continues to slide, Republicans — especially in the Senate — will need to decide whether they are better off running without him at the top of the ticket in 2020.

Second, while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been dragging his feet on any legislative protection for Mueller, members of his own party, including Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), want to push ahead.

Amplifying the support in the Senate and among ordinary Republicans to keep Mueller at work, GOP ads run by Republicans for the Rule of Law have been pushing Republicans to defend Mueller. The cumulative effect of these developments finally may have registered. “While Republicans have at times over the last two years been swayed by the demagoguery of Trump and [Rep. Devin] Nunes and Fox, they’ve come back around to the core American belief in the rule of law,” says Bill Kristol, the group’s co-founder. “The GOP is less solidly Trump’s party than people think.” Even if they still support Trump, Republicans may have figured out that firing or interfering with the special counsel would be politically disastrous for the president and the party.

Third, Mueller continues to press ahead, signaling that lying to him is fruitless since he knows far more than witnesses suspect, and is applying pressure to Roger Stone by attempting to strike plea deals with his associates. Mueller’s already-long list of indictments and plea deals, in all likelihood, will grow before we get a final report. (And that report doesn’t seem to be just around the corner if you consider Mueller hasn’t neither “gotten” to Stone, nor has he decided whether he still must interview Trump.) If bipartisan support for Mueller is high now, imagine what it will be if he reveals more compelling evidence of financial wrongdoing, obstruction of justice or coordination with Russia to intervene in the election on Trump’s behalf. The president’s reliance on his Republican base to stick with him no matter what may, in the long run, prove foolish.

In sum, the Hart Research poll coincides with what Republicans are observing on the ground. Sarah Longwell, another co-founder of Republicans for the Rule of Law, tells me that “this polling confirms what we hear from Republicans all the time. While there may be skepticism among many Republicans about the Mueller investigation, there is still fundamental support for the rule of law. A majority of Republicans want to be sure the investigation can conclude free from political interference, they think it’s wrong that the President has installed an unqualified political ally in Matthew Whitaker at the DOJ, and they do not think the president is above the law.”

Longwell adds that “the overwhelming support across the political spectrum for the Mueller report to be make public is especially notable. These numbers should give pause to anyone who thinks it is politically feasible to keep the report from seeing the light of day. Now that the report is imminent, its clear the American public — Republicans included — want to know the truth, whatever it may be.”

Trump, in other words, may have badly miscalculated the degree to which his party will indulge him as he seeks to discredit or worse, dismiss, Mueller.

Read more from Jennifer Rubin:

Trump’s weakness begets Russian aggression

‘It’s only talk’ is a rotten rationalization for Trump support

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