(This post has been updated with new poll data.)
The Russia investigation and its related inquiries are ramping up in intensity, and President Trump seems to be banking on average Americans not really caring what gets unearthed.
But a new CNN poll released Tuesday indicates the president is losing public trust when it comes to the probe. Just 29 percent of Americans surveyed from Thursday through the weekend approve of how Trump is handling the investigation.
When prosecutors filed sentencing recommendations for former Trump fixer Michael Cohen on Friday evening, Trump responded by tweeting that the documents effectively exonerated him of wrongdoing. (They didn’t).
Then, Monday morning, Trump was back at it, tweeting that the money Cohen paid to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal to keep them quiet about their alleged affairs with Trump were not a violation of campaign finance laws, but rather a “simple private transaction.” (Here’s why it wasn’t.)
Both were classic Trump defenses, aimed at twisting reality and hoping people either believe him or are indifferent.
The sentiments of the tweets are also in line with what one White House official told Washington Post reporters Philip Rucker and Robert Costa was the administration’s latest “ ‘shrugged shoulders’ strategy for the Mueller findings, calculating that most GOP base voters will believe whatever the president tells them to believe.”
Facing two massive steamrollers headed straight for 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Trump can try with all his might, but he is effectively powerless to stop Robert S. Mueller III from revealing his findings or House Democrats from proceeding with their own investigations or even impeachment.
So, Trump’s options are to obfuscate and count on voters, particularly his voters, treating the findings as they have every other controversial thing Trump has said and done on the political stage since June 2015. If Mueller accuses Trump of wrongdoing, Trump’s 2016 theory that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue without paying a political price will be put to the ultimate test. Would voters care?
Public polling is mixed on how much voters do care, but the latest data suggests that while Americans aren’t impressed with Trump’s handling of the probe, they’re basically unmoved on questions about its seriousness and whether Trump will be personally implicated, according to the CNN poll.
Close to 60 percent say it’s a serious matter, while 36 percent say the Mueller probe is an effort to discredit Trump. Similarly, 54 percent of Americans surveyed said most of what Trump says about the investigation is false, though 36 percent mostly believe him. These figures suggest Trump’s base is sticking with him, for now.
In October, the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election ranked lowest among issues important to midterm voters, according to a Gallup survey. Fewer than half of registered voters said it was an extremely or very important issue to them, yet just about two-thirds of Democrats said it was, compared with only 19 percent of Republicans, underscoring Trump’s hope that his voters won’t be swayed by Mueller’s findings.
In August, Americans were asked in a Post-ABC poll how much they had heard about Cohen pleading guilty to illegal campaign finance charges. At the time, 58 percent had heard just some, little or nothing. But the next question found that more Americans thought Trump would be guilty of crime than not (61 percent to 31 percent) if it were determined that he directed Cohen to pay off Daniels and McDougal.
Other polling has found Americans about evenly split on whether Trump should be impeached and removed from office (47 percent for and 48 percent against in this September CNN poll and 42 percent for and 47 percent against in a September Fox poll). This is actually higher than the percentage of Americans (31 percent) who thought President Richard M. Nixon should be impeached after he fired the special prosecutor investigating Watergate in an outburst known as the Saturday Night Massacre. Yet, by the time the House Judiciary Committee recommended Nixon’s impeachment, 57 percent supported his removal from office, according to Pew Research.
Feelings for and against Trump are even more visceral than they were for Nixon back then, and the way people consume news is also very different than it was in the early 1970s, which means it is harder to sway public opinion.
Still, as more evidence is exposed, Trump may not be able to simply shrug it off and hope voters don’t notice.
Emily Guskin and Scott Clement contributed to this report.