Washington • As the special counsel investigation seems to be nearing its final stage, Americans view Robert Mueller as far more credible than President Donald Trump, but the public has scattered and partisan perceptions of Mueller’s motives and what he has found so far, according to a new Washington Post-Schar School poll.
Fifty-six percent to 33 percent, more say they trust Mueller's version of the facts than Trump's. And by nearly as wide a margin, more believe Mueller is mainly interested in "finding out the truth" than trying to "hurt Trump politically."
Nearly two years into his investigation, Mueller has charged 34 people and secured guilty pleas from some of Trump’s closest advisers, including his former campaign chairman, deputy campaign chairman, national security adviser and personal lawyer. The special counsel has alleged 25 Russians, including 12 military officers, conspired to hack Democrats’ emails and wage a social media influence campaign to sway the outcome of the 2016 election, and described in astonishing detail how they did so.
Notably, though, Mueller has not brought criminal charges against any members of the Trump campaign for coordinating in that effort. He has charged several with lying to his investigators or to Congress — adding most recently to that list Roger Stone, a friend of Trump’s for decades whom Mueller has accused of trying to thwart lawmakers’ effort to investigate Russian interference in the election.
Mueller could still charge others or detail in a report whether his investigators came to believe there was coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia. Strong majorities of Democrats and Republicans say Mueller's report should be made public in its entirety, with 81 percent overall supporting its release.
That is far from a guarantee, though. William Barr, Trump’s nominee to be attorney general who is expected to be confirmed this week, has declined to commit to releasing Mueller’s findings, asserting that Justice Department guidelines stipulate a confidential report would be provided to the attorney general. The Justice Department, Barr has noted, generally does not reveal unflattering information about people who prosecutors decide should not be charged with crimes.
Depending on what Mueller finds, the public seems to view the stakes as high, according to the poll, conducted last week by The Post and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. More than 6 in 10 say that if Mueller concludes Trump obstructed justice or authorized his campaign to coordinate with Russians in an effort to win the 2016 election, Congress should begin impeachment hearings to remove him from office. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has taken a cautious approach to addressing questions on the topic, saying in a recent NBC interview, “We shouldn’t be impeaching for a political reason, and we shouldn’t avoid impeachment for a political reason.”
Just over 4 in 10 Americans believe Mueller has proved members of Trump's presidential campaign lied about contacts with Russians, and views on that question split sharply on partisan lines. More than 6 in 10 Democrats believe Mueller has proved Trump campaign members lied about such contacts, while more than 7 in 10 Republicans say he has not.
"On the face of it, partisans have lined up predictably in their respective camps," said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School. But Rozell said the poll indicates views could shift once the report is released, citing the sizable majority who support impeachment if the report implicates Trump in obstruction or collusion. "There are a significant number of people keeping an open mind about what the report will ultimately conclude."
Two of Trump's closest advisers — former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen — have pleaded guilty to lying about the substance of their contacts with Russians, and a third, former campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, has admitted to lying about his conversations with a London-based professor who had told him the Russians held "dirt," in the form of thousands of emails, on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
The poll's findings suggest that while Mueller has maintained significant credibility with the public, he faces a monumental challenge in issuing a report that is accepted and understood across the political spectrum.
A sizable 34 percent minority believes the special counsel has proved Trump's campaign coordinated with Russia to help the Republican win, an allegation Mueller has not made. A 55 percent majority of Democrats believe Mueller has proved Trump's campaign colluded with Russia.
When he was appointed, Mueller was tasked with investigating whether there were "any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated" with Trump's campaign. Mueller's investigation has revealed plenty of links, but it is unclear what he may allege on the question of coordination.
The Post-Schar School poll finds positive overall marks for Mueller's handling of the investigation, with 51 percent of Americans approving, 34 percent disapproving and 15 percent holding no opinion. More than 7 in 10 Democrats approve of Mueller, while about 7 in 10 Republicans disapprove. Independents approve of his efforts by a 52 percent to 29 percent margin.
Americans give Trump parallel negative marks for his response to the investigation, with 35 percent approving and 52 percent disapproving. Ratings of Trump's response are similarly partisan, with independents tilting toward disapproving by a 51 percent to 33 percent margin. Trump has relentlessly attacked Mueller's probe as a partisan "witch hunt."
Attitudes toward Trump and Mueller contrast sharply with views of President Bill Clinton and Ken Starr before the independent counsel released his report 20 years ago. An August 1998 Post-ABC poll found 61 percent of Americans said Starr was mainly interested in hurting Clinton, while 35 percent said he was mainly interesting in finding the truth.
The new poll finds views of Mueller are flipped in the positive direction, with 57 percent saying he is mainly interested in finding the truth, compared with 36 percent who say he is mainly interested in hurting Trump.
Both polls today and in 1998 show people affiliated with the president's party overwhelmingly see investigations as politically motivated, but independents lean differently this year. A 57 percent majority of independents think Mueller is mainly interested in finding the truth, compared with 1998, when 59 percent of independents thought Starr was mainly interested in causing political damage to Clinton.
The Post-Schar School poll was conducted by cell and landline telephone Feb. 6-10 among a random national sample of 841 adults and has an overall margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points.
The Washington Post’s Emily Guskin contributed to this report.