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GOP support for Robert Mueller’s probe is falling

Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller.(Eric Thayer/Bloomberg/File 2017)

WASHINGTON — President Trump accused Special Counsel Robert Mueller of being politically biased against him, of planning to meddle in the midterm elections, and of engaging in a “rigged Russia Witch Hunt.”

And that was just Tuesday before 7 a.m.

No matter that Mueller is a registered Republican and that accusing him of “meddling” in the midterm elections is unsupported by any evidence. Trump’s Twitter tirade followed days of accusations from the president that the FBI inserted a spy into his campaign in 2016, an allegation that law enforcement and some congressional officials say also is not grounded in facts.

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But Trump’s months of political attacks against the Mueller investigation are working, despite pushback by some Republicans. They are helping the president stoke his supporters ahead of the midterm elections, while also laying the groundwork to discredit any negative findings that could be made by Mueller.

Polls show that Republicans are losing faith in Mueller’s objectivity. In November, some 41 percent of Republicans said they thought that he was conducting a fair investigation into any links or coordination between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government. In April, that number was 26 percent.

Among Democrats, support has remained close to 80 percent, while about 60 percent of independents have said the investigation is fair.

In other words, the president has succeeded in turning the Mueller investigation into a partisan weapon.

“He’s flipped the tables,” said John McLaughlin, a Republican pollster who worked for Trump’s campaign and is now working on about two dozen midterm election races.

“People are losing interest and not seeing what the point of the Mueller investigation is anymore. They set expectations that they would find collusion and they haven’t,” he added. “In primaries, among activists, it resonates.”

Some candidates are following the president’s lead, bashing Mueller to rally base Republican voters heading into the midterms, even if it means undermining trust in America’s law enforcement institutions.

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During the GOP primary for US Senate in Indiana, several candidates ridiculed Mueller’s investigation. Representative Todd Rokita said in a television ad that he would “fight the Mueller witch hunt,” while Representative Luke Messer said during a primary debate that the investigation should end.

“I believe these guys are right — it’s definitely a distraction,” agreed businessman Mike Braun, who won the nomination.

“With respect to the Mueller investigation, I think it needs to come to an end,” West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said this month during a GOP Senate primary debate. “It’s a witch hunt, and we need to stop that.” Morrisey won the nomination and is now facing Senator Joe Manchin, a Democratic incumbent, in one of the seats that Republicans have the best shot at flipping.

James Clapper (center), the former director of national intelligence.
James Clapper (center), the former director of national intelligence.(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Former intelligence officials see danger in the GOP tactics.

“Trump is skilled at sowing doubt, and promoting skepticism, even cynicism — a technique the Russians use with great success,” James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence who recently wrote a book called “Facts and Fears: Hard Truths From a Life in Intelligence,” said via e-mail. “Erosion of one of the fundamental pillars of our political system . . . this will lead to decline in respect for, and adherence to, the rule of law.”

He said many Republicans are following the Trump line because they fear the sway the president has over the GOP base in their districts.

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“The criticism is intended to avoid Trump’s wrath,” said Clapper, who served under President Obama.

Officials at the National Republican Congressional Committee said they haven’t given out any specific guidance on whether to go after Mueller, or how to frame those attacks, partly because they don’t view it as having enough of a sustained effect and think immigration is a more potent issue.

While the anti-Mueller rhetoric has been playing out largely in primary races — where Republicans try to hew to the right to win over a Trump base that dominates party politics — it is unclear what the effect will be in general election contests, where both sides try to appeal to independents.

“It will certainly resonate with [Trump’s] voters. The question is how much of a motivator is it for his voters, and how much of the flip side is also true,” said Doug Heye, a longtime Republican consultant. “If you have a Republican saying ‘I’m going to protect the president,’ and the Democrat saying ‘I’m going to impeach the president,’ what does that do to voter enthusiasm? We just don’t know yet.”

Top congressional Republicans have voiced some support for Robert Mueller — and have publicly warned President Trump not to fire him — but they have also not taken firm steps to counter Trump.
Top congressional Republicans have voiced some support for Robert Mueller — and have publicly warned President Trump not to fire him — but they have also not taken firm steps to counter Trump.(Andrew Harnik/Associated Press/File 2017)

Top congressional Republicans have voiced some support for Mueller — and have publicly warned Trump not to fire him — but they have also not taken firm steps to counter Trump. House Speaker Paul Ryan has refused to publicly intervene with Representative Devin Nunes, the California Republican and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who has attacked the FBI investigation.

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Nunes has entertained the possibility that Trump was wiretapped by the FBI during his campaign, wrote a memo alleging that the FBI “may have relied on politically motivated or questionable sources” in obtaining a warrant during its investigation into Trump adviser Carter Page, and has pushed for the release of information on an FBI undercover agent.

None of the allegations from Nunes has resulted in bombshells. Representative Trey Gowdy, who is chairman of the House Oversight Committee and has had access to the same information as Nunes, came to the FBI’s defense Tuesday.

“I am even more convinced that the FBI did exactly what my fellow citizens would want them to do when they got the information they got and that it has nothing to do with Donald Trump,” Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican, told Fox News.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has been unwilling to bring legislation to the floor, passed by the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, that would protect Robert Mueller from being fired by President Trump.
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has been unwilling to bring legislation to the floor, passed by the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, that would protect Robert Mueller from being fired by President Trump.(Tom Brenner/New York Times)

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has been unwilling to bring legislation to the floor, passed by the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, that would protect Mueller from being fired by Trump.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” McConnell said last month of the likelihood of Trump firing Mueller.

Some Republicans worry that the effect of Trump’s continued attacks — and the tacit approval or even complicity of party leadership — is doing lasting damage to the FBI. A Gallup poll released in January found that 49 percent of Republicans said the FBI was doing an “excellent” or “good” job, a decrease from 62 percent who felt that way in 2014.

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A group of Republicans — including Bill Kristol, editor at large of the Weekly Standard and an avowed critic of Trump — recently formed a nonprofit called Republicans for the Rule of Law. It has been running television ads that feature Mueller’s service in Vietnam, supportive comments from prominent Republicans, and a line at the end reading: “Call your Representative. Support the Mueller Investigation.”

The group released a new ad Wednesday in which a narrator says over black and white photos of Mueller, “If he has nothing to hide, he should let the investigation continue without interference. . . . No one is above the law. Even the president.”

“Certainly if you look at the past 50 years, Republicans have generally had, let’s say, a robust skepticism of government — except military and law enforcement,” Heye said. “Now you have the president using the most powerful microphone in the world to do something that has a very specific benefit for him that will have a negative effect on the country.

“That loss of confidence I think is very hard to get back,” he added. “Especially at a time when we’re losing confidence in all institutions.”


Matt Viser can be reached at matt.viser@globe.com.