The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An increasing number of Americans see the FBI as biased against Trump

President Trump talks with reporters in the Oval Office last month. (Evan Vucci/AP)

This is an argument you might not expect from attorneys representing Michael Cohen, the attorney who represents President Trump.

Appointing a third party to review material seized from Cohen in an FBI raid last week “will protect the integrity of the Government’s investigation from the toxic partisan politics of the day and attacks on the impartiality of the Justice Department,” a letter from Cohen’s legal team on Monday read. Earlier, the letter noted that “there is a growing public debate about whether criminal and congressional investigations by the government are being undertaken impartially, free of any political bias or partisan motivation.”

In court, Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas McKay was incredulous: Those “toxic partisan politics” were being driven by Cohen and his client. McKay noted that there were three parties involved in the Cohen dispute — the state, Cohen and Trump — and that only two of those parties had responded to the raid with “inflammatory comments.” Cohen, he argued, was trying to “drum up media attention” and then point to that media attention as a reason to remove the government from the process of evaluating the material seized from Cohen.

Todd Harrison, representing Cohen, was unswayed. There were partisan attacks “going back and forth,” he said, with the end result that America was divided.

“Fifty percent thinks this general investigation is unfair,” Harrison said. “Fifty percent think it’s a great idea.”

Those numbers aren’t quite right. A new poll released by NPR, PBS NewsHour and Marist University shows that about 3 in 10 Americans think that the FBI is biased against the Trump administration (the question that most closely approximates Harrison’s point). Sixty-one percent of Americans think that the FBI is just doing its job.

What’s worth noting, though, is that the partisan divide on the question has grown wider since February.

The views of Democrats on the question haven’t changed much; they’re about 70 points more likely to say the FBI is doing its job than to say that the FBI is biased. Republicans, though, went from a six-point gap in favor of bias to a 22-point spread. More than half of Republicans now think that the FBI is actively biased against Trump.

Political independents often mirror the overall numbers in polls like this (since Democrats and Republicans are often at the poles). Since February, the edge for “doing its job” has fallen among independents from 50 points to 30 points. Three in 10 independents think that the FBI is biased against Trump, just under the overall figure.

This isn’t the half-and-half split Harrison imagines, but it does suggest a more stark divide among American adults than might have been expected. While other measures in the NPR-PBS-Marist poll are generally steady (like opinions of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, which have been in about the same range since January), the shift in views of the FBI is dramatic.

What’s responsible for it? Since February, attacks on the FBI’s impartiality have been consistent. At the beginning of that month, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) released his memo alleging that the bureau’s investigation into Russian interference in 2016 was motivated by partisanship. Trump celebrated the firing of Deputy Director Andrew McCabe in March. (No news network has discussed the FBI more in the past six months than the Trump-sympathetic Fox News.) Former FBI director James B. Comey’s book tour may not be entirely reflected in the poll but establishes Comey as oppositional to the president in a moment that partisan opposition is a powerful political motivator.

The poll was conducted in the immediate aftermath of the Cohen FBI raids. Those “inflammatory comments” cited by McKay were still fresh when the pollsters were asking about the relationship between the FBI and Trump.

In court on Friday, Trump’s attorney went to great pains to note that she didn’t want to cast aspersions on the government when asking that Department of Justice prosecutors not be granted the ability to determine what material seized from Cohen was or wasn’t covered by attorney-client privilege. But she didn’t need to: Her client has repeatedly used his prominent pulpit to cast those aspersions to a much bigger audience.

McKay’s point about who was propagating the anti-FBI rhetoric ended up being set aside. Judge Kimba Wood didn’t give Cohen and Trump what they wanted — but she did note that there may be an increased need to demonstrate that the process was free from bias.

Attitudes about the FBI appear to have shifted just in time for Cohen’s legal team.