Americans can be forgiven if they are not intimately familiar with the hundreds of intertwining threads of the investigation into Russian interference into the 2016 election, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s look at possible coordination in that effort with President Trump’s campaign and the myriad ancillary investigations and indictments that have spun out of those probes. This is not to excuse the surprisingly broad lack of familiarity with what’s already been proved, mind you, but it is certainly understandable if most Americans don’t know who Ted Malloch or Arkadiy Dvorkovich are.
The sprawling investigation is also centered on proving, at least in the abstract, something that’s poorly defined: What do collusion or coordination look like? What counts? Was Donald Trump Jr.'s willing acceptance of dirt in that first June 2016 email pitching a meeting at Trump Tower itself proof of collusion? Has Trump himself remained demonstrably untainted by any connection to Russia? Will evidence ever emerge that can answer that question to most people’s satisfaction?
This isn’t an abstract exercise in the meaning of language, as a new poll from The Washington Post and the Schar School makes clear. We asked voters about the ramifications if Mueller was able to prove that Trump had approved coordination with Russia: Would they then support an effort to impeach the president and remove him from office?
Six-in-10 Americans said they would.
The full text of the question was: “If Mueller’s report concludes that Trump authorized his 2016 campaign to coordinate with the Russian government, would you support or oppose Congress impeaching Trump and trying to remove him from office?” That’s a more precise wording than, say, “If Trump colluded with Russia...” but it is still open to interpretation. If Trump told Trump Jr. to have that Trump Tower meeting, does that count? How do we describe the boundaries?
That’s why another, similar question included in that poll is more revealing.
“If Mueller’s report concludes that Trump tried to interfere with the Russia investigation in a way that amounts to obstruction of justice,” we asked, “would you support or oppose Congress impeaching Trump and trying to remove him from office?” Nearly two-thirds of respondents said they would — including a third of Republicans.
About half of respondents who told us in a separate question that they didn’t think Mueller had yet proved obstruction said that they would support an impeachment process if it were included in the special counsel’s ultimate conclusions.
This is the point at which we note that it was the revelation of obstruction of justice that was most central to Richard Nixon’s resignation from the presidency and that it was one of the counts on which Bill Clinton was impeached. Presidents trying to cover up their actions has demonstrably met with disfavor from the electorate in the past.
But consider the question itself. If Mueller’s report concludes that Trump obstructed justice, almost two-thirds of registered voters (and Americans overall) think Congress should move to impeach the president. That’s presumably a much less nuanced question than coordination — and it’s one that seems much more likely to be demonstrated.
After all, Trump has insisted that he didn’t know about the Trump Tower meeting. He drafted an initial statement about that meeting that included various misleading assertions about its intent. He has been accused of asking then-FBI Director James B. Comey to drop an investigation into his campaign adviser Michael Flynn. He has on multiple occasions tweeted things that experts suggest might amount to witness tampering. There are, in other words, lots of existing suggestions that Trump might have crossed a line that shines much more brightly than the question of “coordination.”
Granted, the question is dependent on what Mueller finds — and it’s not clear that the public will learn everything that Mueller concludes when his investigation is incomplete. It’s also the case that questions asked in the abstract can shift quickly once the abstract solidifies into reality. If Mueller finds that Trump tried to obstruct justice by asking that the investigation into Flynn be dropped, there will certainly be some people who replied in the affirmative to our poll question who compartmentalize the particular circumstances into something that isn’t impeachment-worthy.
But we’re more in the weeds than we need to be. It should be alarming to Trump that more than a third of his own party think that obstruction is an impeachable offense. Relying on semantic distinctions to deflect an impeachment push stemming from evidence of interfering with an investigation is not a strong position for a president.
Especially one seeking reelection next year.