For members of his party, President Trump’s after-the-fact addition of the word “not” to his comments during last week’s news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to have been unnecessary. That addition was meant, however sincerely, to turn his assertion that he didn’t “see any reason why it would be” Russia that interfered into his not seeing any reason it wouldn’t be Russia. But the rest of his comments while standing next to Putin make clear that casting doubt on the repeated assertion from experts that Russia had attempted to interfere in the election was precisely his point.
More than half of Republicans approve of his doing so.
Over the weekend, The Washington Post and our partners at ABC News released a new poll conducted after the Trump-Putin summit. “At a news conference with Putin, Trump expressed doubts about U.S. intelligence conclusions that the Russian government tried to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election,” the poll said, then asked whether respondents approved or disapproved of his having done so.
More than 4 in 10 Americans strongly disapproved of Trump’s treatment of the issue at the news conference. But 51 percent of Republicans said they approved, 28 percent of them strongly. (The numbers on the chart below total 50 percent because of rounding.)
Shortly before that summit, you’ll recall, the investigation led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III obtained indictments against a dozen suspected agents of Russian intelligence agencies for their roles in allegedly hacking the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman in the 2016 election. Mueller’s team had already obtained indictments against another group of Russians for attempting to influence the election over social media. Russia’s hand was seen in the hacking well before the election, with a warning from the government issued in early October. By January, the intelligence community had prepared a classified report thoroughly documenting Russia’s role that was presented to then-President-elect Trump at Trump Tower.
He has worked to undercut those findings almost without exception ever since.
Why? The most immediate rationale is that Trump probably wants to spur skepticism about what Mueller finds just in case Mueller’s team uncovers something that more directly implicates Trump or someone close to him. He’s made Mueller and the FBI a focus of his efforts to confuse the issue of Russian interference, as was obvious from his tweets Monday morning. He claims to accept the intelligence community’s findings while still doing his best to raise questions about those same conclusions.
The question in our poll allows for some interpretation. Maybe Republicans approve of Trump sticking a thumb in the eye of those seen as his political opponents, regardless of venue. Maybe others simply agree that the investigation itself deserves to be questioned.
Republicans generally side with Trump in his fight against the FBI. Similarly, most say that Russia didn’t interfere in the 2016 election, an assertion that’s based on an apparent willingness to accept the arguments and rhetoric of Trump and his allies over the repeated assertions of those with access to classified intelligence. It’s certainly not the case that such assertions should be accepted without skepticism, but both Mueller’s public presentations of evidence and outside analysis bolster the idea that Russia was central to that interference effort. Support for Trump in his battle with the intelligence groups he runs may also be a function of a lack of awareness; an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll found that those who don’t pay attention to the Russia probe are more likely to approve of Trump.
It’s worth noting that Republicans were less supportive of Trump on this issue than they were on others. Most Americans disapprove of the skepticism Trump conveyed during that news conference.
Approval of Trump’s skepticism about intelligence agencies
Slightly more approved of Trump’s handling of the summit overall — including two-thirds of Republicans. (The difference among Democrats on these two questions is not statistically significant.)
Approval of Trump’s handling of the Putin meeting
A new poll from NBC and the Wall Street Journal found that far more Republicans approve of Trump’s job performance overall than approved of the skepticism he expressed during the news conference.
Approval of Trump’s job performance (NBC-Wall Street Journal)
More than 6 in 10 Republicans strongly approve of the job Trump is doing as president. So while Republicans generally approve of Trump’s comments about the intelligence community last week, they do so far less enthusiastically than they support him in general.
The more interesting group is probably not those who enthusiastically back Trump’s approach to the intelligence community but, rather, those who approve of his presidency but disapprove of how he handled last week. Does his handling of the summit detract from their enthusiasm about him? Is it simply another example of the sort of thing that some Republicans accept with a sigh while still appreciating the rest of what he does?
There may not be good answers to those questions until three Novembers from now.