The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

People who say they aren’t following the Russia investigation are much more likely to approve of Trump

President Trump looks on during a joint news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday after their meeting in Helsinki. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

One can’t blame Fox News’s John Roberts for being surprised.

While designating certain news outlets as an enemy of the people of the United States, President Trump has carved out exceptions, assuring his base that he meant only the “fake news” outlets, a group that overlaps entirely with the organizations willing to hold him accountable for his comments and actions. (It generally includes the outlet you’re reading.)

On Thursday morning, though, he applied it more broadly, saying that only the “real enemy of the people, the Fake News Media,” thought his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin wasn’t a success. That rankled Roberts, chief White House correspondent for the outlet that’s consistently been friendliest to Trump.

When Fox News is critical of Trump, it becomes fake news in the president’s eyes. That’s the only line that needs to be crossed.

Roberts’s objection to Trump’s complaint also reminded me of a poll published last week that largely flew under the radar. Conducted by NBC and the Wall Street Journal, it overlaid Trump’s approval rating on top of a question about how much attention respondents were paying to the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Among those paying close attention to the Russia story, Trump’s approval rating is only 40 percent, with nearly 6 in 10 disapproving. Among those not following the Russia story closely? More than half approve of Trump.

Here’s where Fox News comes in: The network has devoted much less time to talking about the probe than either CNN or MSNBC.

On average, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has been mentioned in 1.4 percent of every 15-second chunk of CNN airtime over the past two years, as measured by the Internet Archive’s TV Archive. On MSNBC, 2 percent of those segments have mentioned Mueller. On Fox News? About three-quarters of a percent.

Only about 0.33 percent of segments on Fox News have discussed Russia in the context of the election, less than both CNN and MSNBC, which were at about 0.57 percent.

And Fox News trails in discussion of the investigation, too, with both CNN and MSNBC mentioning it twice as much on average each day.

Suffolk University actually asks poll respondents which news network they trust the most, allowing us to see how that preference correlates to views of Trump. Unsurprisingly, the school’s June poll found that Fox News viewers were much more supportive of Trump than viewers of CNN or, especially, MSNBC.

As always, there’s a chicken-and-egg problem here. There’s broad overlap between Fox’s audience and Republican voters. At one point in 2016, a Suffolk-USA Today poll showed that more than two-thirds of Trump’s support came from people whose most trusted network was Fox News. (Less than a fifth of Hillary Clinton’s support came from MSNBC viewers.) In the June poll, 54 percent of Republicans said that Fox News was the network they trusted most. The next largest category was the 19 percent saying they were undecided.

It’s not clear, too, whether the “paying attention to the Russia probe” delineation is an actual representation of people’s behavior or, instead, a reflection on views of that investigation. Polls repeatedly show that Republicans are much more skeptical of Mueller’s probe and of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Here’s a Fox News poll from last month:

If your view of the investigation is that it’s focused on something that doesn’t exist, would you also say that it was something you were paying close attention to?

It’s hard to separate all of this out. Fox News viewers, Trump support, Republican politics and rejection of the Russia probe all overlap in significant ways.

But on this, Roberts and Fox News may actually be separating out from that pack. As our Eugene Scott notes, a new CBS News poll shows that two-thirds of Republicans approve of Trump’s handling of the summit with Putin.

Some at Fox News, that is. The first interview Trump granted after the summit was to the network’s Sean Hannity.

“You literally just finished the news conference with President Putin moments ago. A lot came up,” Hannity began. “You were very strong at the end of that news conference.”

Trump didn’t disagree.