Learn more about the impeachment process from Crooked’s new podcast Rubicon: The Impeachment of Donald Trump, hosted by our Editor-in-Chief Brian Beutler.
Fox News was founded in 1996, but its true origins date back to the 1970s, and the conservative leaders of the time who believed Richard Nixon would have survived the Watergate scandal if only the right had its own mass media. Silo Republican voters, erect a right-wing counter-establishment, and future Republican leaders would be effectively immune from accountability.
A new survey from Crooked Media and Change Research suggests that the plan is working well enough to protect Donald Trump from impeachment, but not to protect Republicans from the political consequences of their complicity in his crimes. In short: Most people in the country support impeaching President Trump and removing him from office, but a stable, large minority remains stubbornly opposed, in large measure because right-wing media has successfully misled them about what Trump has done. That effect has locked the Republican Party into a deeply unpopular formation of lockstep support for Trump, which would allow Trump to survive an impeachment trial, but leave him and his party badly damaged in its wake.
In fact, our polling suggests that the impeachment process has already damaged Trump politically, and that if his presidency survives, it will be because conservative media figures continue to protect him, while Republican lawmakers continue to help Trump obstruct the investigation.
We surveyed 971 registered voters across the country. Like other impeachment polls, ours finds that most voters support impeaching Trump and even removing him from office. They support impeachment by a significant 53-45 margin, and removing him from office by a slightly smaller 51-46 margin.
But the overwhelming majority of those who oppose impeachment are resolutely opposed. Most of those who are opposed say it’s because they’ve been convinced the allegations against Trump are untrue, while a smaller number—11 percent—say it’s because they’ve concluded the allegations, while true, don’t merit impeachment. These findings underscore what Trump needs to do if he’s to keep opposition to impeachment high enough to discourage Republican members of Congress from turning on him: mislead as many Republican voters as possible, and, where that’s not possible, prevent new, damning information from coming to light.
The question Republicans now face is whether they’ll be able to maintain this firewall through the public phase of the impeachment process. And the question for Democrats is, what will they do if conservative efforts to place Trump above the law survive the Ukraine inquiry?
Among all of our respondents, more said they get their news from Fox News than any other single source, and that effect is most heavily pronounced among Republican respondents. Among those Fox News-watching Republicans, 89 percent oppose impeachment because they believe the central facts of the Ukraine scandal—that Trump withheld congressionally appropriated military aid to force Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 election on his behalf—are simply not true. That number falls to 59 percent among non-Fox watching Republicans. Overall, 68 percent of respondents who oppose the inquiry simply disbelieve the allegations.
Of course, Republicans who do believe the allegations largely oppose impeachment anyhow. But these findings still suggest Trump’s presidency hinges on systematically misinforming Republican voters and trying to conceal the extent of Trump’s misconduct from the minority of Republican voters who don’t insist the Ukraine allegations are simply untrue.
We can’t know what the topline numbers would look like in absence of conservative propaganda and Republican obstruction, but we have some clues. When asked generically “if a President of either party were to [pressure] foreign governments to smear the President’s political rivals to help the President win an election,” the margin of support for impeachment explodes to 60-25, with 16 percent saying they’re unsure.
Among Trump’s best-known abuses of power, that’s the one the greatest number of voters believe is impeachable in the abstract. But the backdrop for this striking finding is a concerted Republican effort to conceal evidence of further misconduct from Congress and the public. Numerous Trump subordinates, allies, and former administration officials have defied subpoenas for testimony and documents at Trump’s behest. Such figures include (or are likely to include) his former national security adviser, John Bolton, his acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, and John Eisenberg—the White House’s top national security lawyer.
These witnesses could answer important questions such as:
- Has Trump corrupted foreign policy with any other governments, and if so how?
- Did Trump personally order military aid to be illegally withheld and why?
- Have other summaries of calls between Trump and foreign heads of state been improperly classified to hide embarrassing or abusive conduct?
Answers to these questions would give voters more factual justifications for impeachment to ponder, some of which might be more worrying for Trump and the GOP than the allegation at the center of the Ukraine scandal.
It might thus seem that Republicans have no incentive to stop helping Trump cover up his crimes and mislead the public about them. But that’s not necessarily the case. Republicans and Democrats are as divided about impeachment as they are about just about anything, but independents and swing voters side with Democrats on the question of impeaching Trump, and swing voters do so overwhelmingly. Fifty-one precent of independents and 60 percent of swing voters support the impeachment inquiry, and those numbers drop only to 50 and 57 percent respectively on the question of removing Trump from office.
Moreover, while voters are close to evenly split over how Democrats have handled the impeachment inquiry, they absolutely hate the way Republicans in Congress have conducted themselves since the inquiry began, and those numbers are considerably worse for the GOP among swing voters. Voters disapprove of efforts to obstruct the inquiry. Overall, voters oppose congressional Republicans’ handling of impeachment 36-60, some of which may reflect conservative frustration that Republicans haven’t done enough to protect Trump. But swing voters think Democrats have acquitted themselves well by a large 56-41 margin, and among this group, support for congressional Republicans’ handling of impeachment has collapsed to 22-71.
This suggests Republicans will feel some pressure to change tacks despite their voters’ opposition to impeachment. But if that doesn’t happen Democrats shouldn’t feel under intense pressure to draw the inquiry to a swift close. Fifty-one percent of voters want Democrats to expand the impeachment inquiry if evidence points to additional abuses of power. That number includes 84 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of independents, and these voters already believe evidence points to the existence of other impeachable offenses. The Republican plan for now is to save Trump by keeping his crimes under wraps and misleading as many voters as they can about what is already known—just as Nixon’s allies would’ve wanted. Our findings suggest the best antidote to this strategy might be to put more evidence of impeachable conduct out into the world until Republicans either decide to relent or drown themselves.