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Horowitz: Helsinki’s Political Impacts

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

 

Donald Trump

As one would expect, given today’s polarized and tribal electorate where views of Donald Trump are mainly fixed, polls conducted in the wake of Trump’s disgraceful, incompetent and craven performance in Helsinki and his unconvincing efforts at damage control in its immediate aftermath, do not show marked shifts in public opinion.  

While by considerable margins registered voters as a whole disapprove of President Trump’s handling of the Summit, only about than 1-in-5 Republicans do. Fifty percent of registered voters disapprove of Trump’s handling of Helsinki as compared with 33% who approve, according to a recently completed Washington Post Poll. Similarly, a CBS News Poll shows that 55% of American voters disapprove of Trump’s handling of the Summit with Putin, as opposed to 32% who approve. In both these polls, however, more than 2-out-of-3 Republicans indicate their approval.

Still, Trump’s approval among Republicans for his actions last week are considerably lower than his nearly 90% overall job approval among this subset of the electorate.  And when it comes to Trump raising doubts about the conclusion of the intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections, only a bare majority of Republicans, 51% approve, as compared with 31% who disapprove. 

Given Trump’s marked unpopularity with the rest of the electorate, he can ill-afford any cracks in his Republican support. This event alone is unlikely to bring that about, but if he continues to make blatant and glaring foreign policy mistakes between now and the mid-terms, it will likely contribute to reduced Republican turnout as well as some defections particularly among college graduates who tend to be more critical of Trump in this area, putting even more suburban swing districts at risk.

The more lasting political damage created by President Trump’s performance in Helsinki is it is likely to make his efforts to undermine the credibility of the Mueller Investigation less effective. Taken together with the detailed and well-documented indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officials by the special counsel, Trump’s appearing to tilt towards believing Putin’s denials of election meddling over the views of his own intelligence chiefs and his overall visible cozying up to the Russian dictator, make his cries of witch hunt seem even more hollow.

Going forward, fewer Republican elected officials are likely to back up Trump’s transparently absurd claims about the work of the special counsel. One can see signs of this already. Representative Trey Gowdy(R-SC), usually an ally of the president, strongly criticized him on Fox News Sunday this past weekend, going as far as to say that if Trump didn’t change, his national security team would have to consider resignation: “It can be proven beyond any evidentiary burden that Russia is not our friend and they tried to attack us in 2016. The President either needs to rely on the people that he has chosen to advise him, or those advisers need to reevaluate whether or not they can serve in this administration. The disconnect cannot continue. The evidence is overwhelming and the president needs to say that and act like it.”

The political need for Republican elected officials to separate themselves from the president on Russia post-Helsinki can also be seen in last week’s 98 to 0 vote for a resolution opposing allowing Russian officials to interrogate Americans, such as former Ambassador McFaul, who Putin has falsely accused of crimes. This was Putin’s proposal as a quid pro quo for giving Mueller’s team the opportunity to speak with the Russian intelligence officers charged in the indictment--a proposal that Trump actually seemed to initially embrace.

So Trump’s disgraceful performance in Helsinki will probably end up giving Bob Mueller more running room.  There is something just and fitting about that.

 

Rob Horowitz is a strategic and communications consultant who provides general consulting, public relations, direct mail services and polling for national and state issue organizations, various non-profits and elected officials and candidates. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island. 

 

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