Two-thirds of Americans oppose launching a preemptive military strike against North Korea, with a majority trusting the U.S. military to handle the escalating nuclear crisis responsibly but not President Trump, a new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds.
Roughly three-quarters of the public supports tougher economic sanctions on North Korea in an attempt to persuade it to give up its nuclear weapons, while just about one-third think the United States should offer the isolated country foreign aid or other incentives.
The Post-ABC poll finds 37 percent of adults trust Trump either “a great deal” or “a good amount” to responsibly handle the situation with North Korea, while 42 percent trust the commander in chief “not at all.” By comparison, 72 percent trust U.S. military leaders, including 43 percent saying they trust them “a great deal.”
A scant 8 percent of Americans surveyed think North Korean leader Kim Jong Un can act responsibly.
Overall, Trump’s image continues to be negative, with 39 percent of Americans approving and 57 percent disapproving of the president’s job performance. But the poll finds that clear majorities approve of Trump’s response to recent hurricanes and support the agreement he struck with Democrats providing emergency disaster-relief funding and raising the nation’s debt limit.
A war of words this past week between Trump and Kim may have opened a potentially dangerous new chapter in the North Korea crisis.
Kim called Trump “a mentally deranged U.S. dotard,” Trump denounced Kim as a “madman,” and each vowed to test the other as never before. Washington rolled out new sanctions Thursday and made a show of military force Saturday by flying bombers along the North Korea coast, a day after Pyongyang said it might soon conduct a hydrogen bomb test over the Pacific.
Trump’s use of aggressively personal taunts — the president nicknamed Kim “Rocket Man” in an address at the United Nations last week — defies convention and is seen by veteran diplomats as exceedingly risky.
The large gap in confidence between Trump and the U.S. military, as measured in the new poll, comes as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other national security officials have emphasized a diplomatic approach to North Korea. Although Mattis has made clear that the United States is prepared and willing to retaliate to any attack with overwhelming force, he also has shied away from the rhetorical bombast employed by his boss.
Faith in Trump’s handling of the biggest foreign policy crisis of his presidency is colored sharply by partisanship. While 11 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of independents say they trust Trump to act responsibly in dealing with North Korea, more than three-quarters of Republicans say they trust the president, although just over half trust him “a great deal.”
Partisans are relatively united, however, in their concern about nuclear-armed North Korea. A record high 70 percent of Americans say North Korea poses a “serious threat” to the United States, including roughly 7 in 10 Democrats and independents and about 8 in 10 Republicans.
Trump’s overall job approval rating has stabilized at 39 percent in the new poll after slipping to 36 percent in July. The shift is within the poll’s margin of sampling error but is mirrored in the small rise in other recent national polls. Still, more Americans “strongly” disapprove of his job performance, 48 percent, than approve of it either “strongly” or “somewhat.”
The Post-ABC poll finds 65 percent of Americans support the agreement reached this month between Trump and Democratic congressional leaders to authorize emergency hurricane-relief spending and raise the federal government’s borrowing limit.
Two-thirds of Democrats and more than 6 in 10 independents back the agreement. And although the measure marked a rebuke of Republican leaders in Congress, it has the support of more than three-quarters of Republicans and a similar share of conservative Republicans.
Trump also receives a positive grade for his response to hurricanes Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida, with 56 percent approving of his handling of the disasters, including nearly one-third of Democrats.
Seven in 10 rate the overall federal response as “excellent” or “good.” That is less glowing than ratings for the government’s handling of Hurricane Sandy during the Obama administration in 2012, but far better than the public’s assessment of the response by the administration of George W. Bush to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when fewer than 4 in 10 gave the federal government positive marks.
Trump’s high marks on hurricanes and the spending deal with Democrats in Congress have failed to ease deep-seated dissatisfaction with his presidency, now entering its ninth month.
Despite positive recent economic news, Trump receives net negative marks on his handling of the economy, with 43 percent approving and 49 percent disapproving.
On immigration, 62 percent of Americans disapprove of Trump’s performance, including 51 percent “strongly” disapproving. The Trump administration this month announced an end to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program created under President Barack Obama, but Trump has since discussed with Democrats a possible plan to restore protections for a group of undocumented immigrants commonly known as “dreamers” — those who were brought to the United States as children.
More broadly, most Americans see Trump as a divisive figure who has yet to fulfill his campaign promise to positively change the way Washington works. More than twice as many Americans say Trump is doing more to divide the country than to unify it, 66 percent vs. 28 percent. The margin is significantly more negative than those recorded for Obama and Bush; at most, 55 percent of Americans said Obama or Bush was dividing the country.
Opinions on this question break sharply along party lines. Among registered voters who identify as independents — a group Trump won by four percentage points in last year’s election — 62 percent say Trump has done more to divide the country than unite it, while roughly 9 in 10 Democratic voters say Trump’s actions have divided the country.
Among Republican voters, however, about 6 in 10 say Trump is making strides toward unity. Still, confidence in Trump as a unifying force has declined even among those in his party. While 9 percent of Republican voters in a poll last November by The Washington Post and George Mason University's Schar School had expected that Trump would divide the country, the new Post-ABC poll finds 31 percent of Republicans say Trump's actions are dividing the country today.
The poll finds 39 percent of all adults say Trump has brought needed change to Washington, while 59 percent say he has not. Almost three-quarters of Republicans say Trump has ushered in needed change, while most Democrats and independents say he has not.
On North Korea specifically, most Americans are hesitant to support preemptive military action. Fewer than a quarter — 23 percent — of Americans say the United States should strike North Korea first, while 67 percent say there should be U.S. military action only if North Korea attacks the United States or its allies.
Over 6 in 10 Republicans and independents along with more than 7 in 10 Democrats say the United States should not launch a preemptive strike. Even among those who “strongly approve” of Trump’s job performance, a majority, almost 6 in 10, oppose preemptive military action.
If the United States did first launch a military strike on North Korea, 82 percent of Americans say it would risk starting a larger war in East Asia, including 69 percent citing a “major risk.”
Despite resistance to preemption, however, Americans are much more supportive of military intervention generally than they have been in the past. In a question that did not contrast preemption and retaliation, the new poll finds roughly 4 in 10 Americans support bombing North Korean military targets, up from 2 in 10 in 2005, when North Korea declared itself a nuclear power. Republican support for bombings has more than doubled, from 29 percent in 2005 to 63 percent today. Most Democrats and independents still are opposed.
Beyond military strikes, toughening sanctions on North Korea garners widespread support across party lines, with 76 percent of Americans overall approving.
Other nonmilitary options aimed at pushing North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons are less popular. About one-third of Americans support offering the country financial incentives, such as aid money or more trade, down from about half supporting this approach in 2005. And while Russia and China have called on the United States to reduce its military exercises with South Korea, a key U.S. ally, American public opinion is roughly divided. Forty-three percent think the United States should agree to stop conducting the exercises, while 47 percent oppose doing so.
The Washington Post-ABC News poll was conducted Sept. 18-21 among a random national sample of 1,002 adults reached on cellular and landline telephones, with overall results carrying a sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Emily Guskin contributed to this report.