One of the remarkable aspects of the lengthy investigation conducted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III from 2017 to 2019 is that it changed basically no one’s mind.
At the edges, yes, the details uncovered by Mueller and his investigators fleshed out our understanding of how Russia tried to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and how Donald Trump’s campaign welcomed that interference. Mueller’s final report documented the scale of both of those efforts and articulated areas where questions still loomed. And, after the report came out, Americans generally viewed the whole thing precisely as they did at the outset.
This wasn’t an accident. Trump was calling the Mueller probe a “witch hunt” before it existed. He worked furiously as news trickled out to cast the whole thing as a partisan attack on his still-young presidency, and that narrative stuck. In fact, it became a defining theme for Trump: they — the “deep state,” liberals, elites, the lot — were out to get him and would do anything to take him down. Never mind that there were real legal questions at play and never mind that Trump’s arguments were often debunked or obviously false from the outset. This frame that Trump was unfairly targeted was a get-out-of-jail-free card for the former president, perhaps literally.
With that in mind, new polling by Marist conducted for NPR and PBS NewsHour should not be a surprise. Asked generally about investigations Trump is currently facing, 4 in 5 Republicans dismissed them as a “witch hunt.”
Again, this is in reference to “investigations.” Not simply the possibility that a grand jury in Manhattan will indict Trump on felony charges related to allegedly cooking the books at the Trump Organization to hide an affair with adult-film actress Stormy Daniels. This is a blanket question that includes his efforts to undercut the 2020 election results in Georgia and his multipronged effort to reject his national loss that year, culminating in the Jan. 6, 2021 riot at the Capitol.
All of that, it seems, is just authorities out to get Trump.
Mind you, it’s not that Republicans don’t think Trump did anything wrong. It’s not entirely that they excuse his actions, since nearly half told Marist’s pollsters that they think Trump did something unethical. They just say they don’t think he broke the law, a finely sliced hair that allows them to both dismiss their opponents as biased and to recognize the obvious reality that Trump’s behavior was abnormal, at best.
This, too, is not a new divide.
Pollsters from YouGov, doing research for the Economist, asked people specifically about the situation reportedly under consideration in Manhattan. Asked if it was a crime to fail to report spending aimed at covering up negative information before an election, most people, including most Republicans, said it was. (As, in fact, it is.)
Republicans, though, were much less likely to say this was a crime. In fact, that’s a big change from earlier this month, when three-quarters of Republicans said such actions were criminal. Over the span of a week, the percentage of Republicans saying that unreported payments were a crime dropped from 76 percent to 62 percent. Some of that is statistical noise, but much of it is unquestionably an increase in awareness about the legal threat Trump faces.
Then YouGov simply asked if Trump should face criminal charges for making such a payment. More than 6 in 10 Republicans said he should not.
In other words, there were respondents who both believed that such a coverup is criminal and that Trump shouldn’t be charged for the coverup. This may be a function of the bank-shot nature of the potential charges in Manhattan, which reportedly focus on the Trump Organization’s documentation of the payment. It may also just be a function of Trump’s Republican base having spent years viewing his actions as unworthy of accountability.
The term “witch hunt,” of course, is meant to suggest a delusional, hyperactive attempt to target obviously innocent individuals. Most Republicans don’t even think that Trump is entirely innocent, according to the Marist poll, and the various “witch hunts” he has alleged in the past have resulted in a lot of different criminal indictments.
But that branding may have been the most effective in Trump’s long marketing career. A huge slice of the country stands ready to give him a pass against these purported “witch hunts” — and even to rally to his side in the face of them.