President Trump is almost certainly the most partisan president in modern U.S. history. His polling shows a bigger partisan split than past presidents. He has deliberately sought to bolster his political base — mostly Republicans — to the exclusion of his political opponents. He actively and publicly stokes political divides.
Trump is aware of the power of staking out a sharply partisan position. He actively works to reinforce the support of his base and then leverages that loyalty as a buffer from criticism. He regularly distills complicated issues into a me-versus-them fight, and asks his supporters to side with him.
Take the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. This is a complicated issue for Trump, if not for others. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reiterated the official government position, which is that the Russians did interfere. Trump insists that maybe they didn’t, because he sees an acknowledgment that Russia tried to meddle in the election as an admission that perhaps some outside force affected the results — and, therefore, calls into question whether he deserves to be president. That’s the underlying issue for Trump, the reason that he denies, without any evidence at all, that he actually lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton. But that’s also not really the issue at hand in this article.
To undercut questions about his legitimacy that stem from the Russian interference, Trump leverages partisan loyalty to cast as opponents anyone who is investigating that interference, including former FBI director James B. Comey and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, as well as the FBI itself, which began investigating Russian meddling in the summer of 2016. Mueller’s investigation — stemming from Comey’s firing by Trump — has become a significant problem for Trump and a potential threat to his position. So Trump rails against it.
His allies join him. Over the past month, no network has mentioned the FBI more than Fox News, according to the Internet Archive’s index of news captions. Fox News has mentioned the FBI 2,211 times, and Fox Business another 1,240. MSNBC, by contrast, has mentioned the agency 2,026 times — 8 percent less often. Peter Strzok, the FBI agent removed from Mueller’s team after it was discovered that he’d sent texts appearing to disparage Trump, was mentioned 347 times over the past eight days on Fox, 25 times as often as he was mentioned on CNN and 17 times as often as on MSNBC.
That appeal to partisanship appears to be working. Polling from Quinnipiac University released on Tuesday asked a slew of questions about the Russia investigation, Trump, Comey and Mueller.
The responses, ranked by how likely Republicans were to agree with the provided statement.
Last week, Trump lawyer John Dowd claimed that Trump, as president, can’t obstruct justice because he is the nation’s chief law enforcement officer. Most Americans — including most Republicans — don’t necessarily see it that way. Nearly three-quarters of those in his own party say that Trump should be subject to the same laws as anyone else.
Beyond that, though, Republicans grow more supportive of Trump. On most of these issues — all but three — fewer than a quarter of Republicans agree with the premise. Few believe that Trump himself thinks he’s above the law. Few believe that Trump acted unethically in his interactions with Russia. Few believe that he is abusing the power of his office. Fewer believe Comey’s claim (offered under oath) that Trump hinted that he wanted the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn to end. Most Republicans, in fact, have more confidence in the honesty of Trump than of Comey — 75 percent hold that opinion.
On most issues — all but four — a majority of Americans are skeptical of Trump. That includes the question of whether Trump acted unethically — because more Americans think he did something illegal. In total, 63 percent of Americans (but only a quarter of Republicans) think that Trump acted either unethically or illegally in regards to Russia. Most Americans think that Russia did change the outcome of the 2016 election, no doubt to Trump’s chagrin. Less than half the country, though, thinks that he colluded with Russia personally. But more than half think his campaign did.
Perhaps most striking, fewer than half of Americans (including less than half of Republicans and independents) believe Trump should be impeached or removed from office if he were to fire Mueller. Many of Trump’s supporters have advocated firing the special counsel, even if Trump hasn’t embraced it explicitly. Impeachment is the most severe punishment Trump could face for ousting Mueller — which, we’ll note, isn’t as easy as it sounds — but, still. If he were to try to ax Mueller, less than half the country thinks he should face that punishment.
Looking at the big picture, this poll isn’t good for Trump. Americans generally think he acted inappropriately and out of his own self-interest, and many think that he was unethical or behaved in a manner that broke the law.
But Trump tends not to look at the big picture, focusing instead on where those red dots fall. In that sense, this poll is not half bad. His efforts to get his party to stand with him in this dire moment have largely been successful.