This new poll shows our looming Mueller mess


Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III (J. Scott Applewhite)
February 12 at 1:01 PM

We’re (apparently) nearing the end of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into the 2016 Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russia, and the current degree of confusion and misinformation bodes very poorly for any kind of widely-accepted resolution.

A new Washington Post-Schar School poll expands on the somewhat limited Mueller polling we’ve seen to date, asking about specific facets of the Russia probe, in addition to whether people trust and approve of Mueller and Trump.

The results are telling: As The Post’s Matt Zapotosky noted, most Republicans believe Mueller hasn’t proven crimes that he actually has proven, and most Democrats believe Mueller has proven things he hasn’t even alleged.

Americans say 45 percent to 43 percent that Mueller has not proven that members of Trump’s 2016 campaign lied about their contacts with Russians, despite the fact that both Michael Cohen and Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to exactly that. (Flynn’s admitted lies came during the transition period, but he was a Trump surrogate in 2016. Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, also served as a surrogate and pleaded guilty to lying about Kremlin contacts during the campaign.) Mueller has also accused former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort of lying about his contacts with a Russian associate in Ukraine, though we don’t know all the details there yet.

Fully 75 percent of Republicans say such lies have not been proven, although they have been, legally speaking. Some might argue that Flynn and Cohen don’t technically fit the definition of “members” of the Trump campaign, but it’s highly unlikely most people are drawing such a fine and highly debatable distinction between surrogates and campaign aides.

Americans are also confused about whether Mueller has proven collusion or obstruction of justice by Trump. Americans say, 54 percent to 34 percent, that Mueller hasn’t proven that Trump’s campaign “coordinated with the Russians” and, 57 percent to 28 percent, that he hasn’t proven Trump interfered in the Russia investigation.

But that leaves 34 percent and 28 percent, respectively, who believe Mueller has proven those things. And here’s the thing: He hasn’t even alleged them yet, much less proven them. Yet still, on collusion and obstruction of justice, 55 percent and 51 percent of Democrats believe that they have now been proven.

We can again parse those answers charitably. Perhaps people who think these things are proven are simply looking at things that have leaked out in media reports and court filings. Perhaps they think the Trump Tower meeting was damning, in and of itself, and that Trump’s public tweets amount to obstruction. But that’s still a whole lot of people believing Mueller has proven something he hasn’t even broached in any great detail. We simply don’t know whether Mueller will even argue that these things rise to the level of collusion/coordination or obstruction of justice.

Which brings me back to a point I’ve made before: This probably won’t end well. It’s possible that once Mueller issues his report, all this confusion will suddenly disappear. Perhaps he’ll produce a smoking gun (or two), or maybe he will absolve Trump and his campaign of wrongdoing on these questions.

But the truth seems much more likely to reside somewhere in the murky middle, leaving Congress to decide what to do about it through a possible impeachment process.

If that’s the case, public perception matters immensely. That’s especially true when it comes to whether Republican senators would consider removing Trump from office after a Democratic-controlled House impeached him. Twenty of 53 GOP senators would be needed to do so, and given that 75 percent of Republican voters seem to believe that crimes that have been proven haven’t been proven, that’s not exactly a recipe for many of them to believe Mueller’s conclusions. If 60 percent or more of Republicans disbelieve Mueller and/or stand by Trump, that creates and extremely difficult decision for those senators.

Similarly, the fact that a majority of Democrats appear to have concluded that these crimes are now proven by Mueller speaks to just how invested they are in a particular outcome, even before Mueller produces anything on these fronts. If Mueller issues a report that leaves this in anything amounting to a gray area and hands it over to Congress, Democrats will be apoplectic if Congress doesn’t see it like they do.

NBC News is now reporting that the Senate Intelligence Committee has concluded there is “no direct evidence” of coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia — a conclusion reached on a bipartisan basis. Of course, Mueller might have other, more damning evidence. But it should temper expectations.

Asking Americans to understand complicated legal minutiae was always ripe for creating a mess. The media could certainly do a better job, as it always can, but this poll suggests the misinformation is relatively bipartisan. And to some degree, partisans will simply believe what they want to believe.

That doesn’t mean the truth isn’t worth pursuing; it just means that a large portion may not accept it, and that Congress may not act accordingly as a result.

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