Confidence in Mueller’s Investigation: July Update
In July 2017, we began an ongoing investigation of the public’s confidence in national security matters. Since October of that year, we have been tracking public confidence in the work of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference in 2016 and his review of efforts to obstruct inquiries into that interference. This post shares our data on public confidence in Mueller after what we expect to be his final appearance, the July 24 congressional testimony before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees. In short, the results show that confidence in Mueller’s objectivity, thoroughness and investigations of obstruction have remained relatively unchanged, overall, after his testimony. However, this consistency across all respondents masks considerable variation among partisan groups, with Republicans being considerably less supportive of Mueller’s objectivity, thoroughness and investigations since the release of his report.
We have measured public opinion around significant moments during Mueller’s investigation, using a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 indicating the highest level of confidence in Mueller, and combining those selecting a 4 or 5 to indicate high confidence. For example, we tested public opinion before and after the special counsel’s announcement of the first indictments, finding that while initially a plurality had no confidence in Mueller, after the announcement a plurality had high confidence in him, a reversal of our prior results. We saw a similar effect after the indictment of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, where confidence in the special counsel had fallen after the first indictments but rose again after the second set of indictments were announced.
We also measured public opinion before and after the release of Attorney General William Barr’s summary of the special counsel’s investigation in April. Prior to the release of the Barr letter, confidence in the special counsel was low among Republicans, which we attribute to the repeated attacks on the credibility of the investigation, its personnel and Special Counsel Mueller himself by the president, his congressional allies and conservative media. By contrast, after the release of the Barr summary, we saw the percentage of Republican respondents manifesting high confidence in Mueller jump from 19% to 55%, while high confidence among Democratic respondents fell from 61% to 51%. High confidence ratings among Independents, the largest self-identified group in our sample, increased modestly from 44% to 49%.
Given the shifting dates of Special Counsel Mueller’s planned congressional testimony, we were not able to sample public opinion immediately prior to his widely televised appearance, but we did measure public opinion afterward, from July 25 to July 28. Following our prior methodology of grouping responses as either a 4 or 5 on our five-point scale to indicate high confidence, we found that public opinion had again shifted on Mueller.
Overall, we found the largest change in public confidence in Mueller among self-identified Republican respondents, who had more confidence in the investigation following Attorney General Barr’s summary than following congressional testimony with the special counsel. The special counsel’s findings and conclusions were largely read to him by members of Congress, alternating by party, and responded to with yes or no answers, rather than restated by Mueller himself, which might have affected viewers’ perceptions of the testimony.
On questions of confidence in the special counsel’s “fairness and objectivity,” while Republican high confidence in Mueller after the Barr summary was the highest among the partisan groups at 55%, by the time Mueller had completed his testimony, Republican high confidence had sunk to 29%. At the same time, Democratic high confidence returned to its prereport levels at 62%, reversing the dip in confidence from after the Barr summary. This change was driven mostly by a 16% increase in respondents selecting the highest level of confidence, a 5. Responses by Independents, again the largest numerical category of respondents in our survey, fell slightly from the post-Barr summary level of 50%, down to 46%, but again remained higher than the prereport levels of 43%.
On the question of whether the special counsel’s office had thoroughly examined all the evidence of misconduct by the Trump administration and campaign, again, Republican shifts in confidence were the greatest: 62% of Republican respondents indicated high confidence in Mueller’s thoroughness after the Barr summary was released, but that proportion fell to only 44% after Mueller’s testimony. By contrast, Democratic high confidence in Mueller’s thoroughness on evidence of misconduct increased after Mueller’s testimony to 63% from 50% after the Barr summary. Independents’ views of Mueller’s thoroughness in reviewing misconduct fell slightly, but a majority of Independents continue to have high confidence in Mueller’s thoroughness.
We also resurveyed the question of the public’s confidence in Mueller’s examination of the links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign. This has been colloquially characterized by the president and the media as whether there was collusion. Again, Republican high confidence fell, to 47% from 65% after the Barr summary, a notable decline, but still 20 points higher than the pre-Barr summary value of 27%. Democrats, following a similar pattern, gave Mueller a 63% high confidence response after the congressional testimony, reversing the dip in response to the Barr summary of only 51% high confidence. Independent opinion remained relatively constant on this question, within the margin of error.
On the questions relating to the public’s confidence in Mueller’s thoroughness on efforts to obstruct the investigation, again, we saw partisan swings, in contrast to the stability in the response of Independents. Republican high confidence fell to 47% after the hearings from 61% after Barr’s summary was released, again 20 points higher than the period before any of the report’s conclusions were known. Democrats’ high confidence in Mueller increased as a result of the testimony to 58% of respondents from 45% after the Barr mischaracterization, but slightly lower than the 61% high confidence before the results were public.
We also asked whether the public felt that more investigation was needed. A plurality of respondents overall felt that no further investigation was needed both before and after Mueller’s testimony, but partisan differences persisted on this question. Sixty-five percent of Republican respondents felt that no additional investigation was needed, virtually the same as before Mueller’s testimony. Among Democrats, 55% of respondents felt additional investigation was needed, a slight dip from the pretestimony level of 57%. Again, Independent responses after the hearings indicated a slim plurality, at 38%, felt that no additional investigation was needed.
While the special counsel’s investigation has concluded, congressional investigations are continuing, and much of the congressional questioning explored limits to the special counsel’s review. During testimony, Mueller repeatedly demurred, saying things were outside his purview on both predicate issues as to how the investigation began and counterintelligence matters that he had referred to the FBI. The stability in these numbers is interesting as both parties indicated the need for additional investigation into collateral issues, but the parties differ widely as to what those issues should be.
Finally, we asked how damaging the special counsel’s findings are for the president, both after the Barr summary and after Mueller’s testimony. Those responses are being reported here for the first time. We asked respondents to rate the impact of the report on a 1 to 5 scale, where 1 represented not at all damaging and 5 represented highly damaging. Overall, in both questions, a 30% plurality rated the findings a 1, indicating they were not at all damaging for the president. After Mueller’s testimony, 53% of Republicans found that the findings were not at all damaging, a supermajority at 69% rated it a 1 or a 2. Only 22% of Democrats rated the findings less damaging at a 1 or a 2, while 58% rated it a 4 or a 5, more damaging. Independents were more evenly divided on the impact: 43% viewed the findings as less damaging at a 1 or a 2, and 36% viewed the findings as very damaging at a 4 or a 5.
Comparing the perceived impact to the period after the Barr summary, we see a slight increase (five points) in Republican responses of less damaging, 64% of which were at a 1 or a 2, and a slight (two point) reduction in Republicans responses of more damaging, from 14% after the summary to 12% after the hearings. The changes in Democratic and Independent responses were within the margin of error before and after the hearings. This suggests that the hearings had little impact on people’s perceptions of the findings. We do not know whether this response is a judgment of the seriousness of the findings or their assessment of the likelihood that any consequences will be imposed on this president.
Looking at the results of these surveys, we continue to see that perceptions of the special counsel’s findings remain deeply divided along partisan lines. We also see that the special counsel’s own testimony has shifted Republican perceptions in the wake of the Barr summaries, with Republicans largely turning against the special counsel. The special counsel’s testimony also increased Democrats’ confidence in his investigation to erase the dips in confidence that we saw in the mischaracterization of the results by Attorney General Barr. Notably, though, public confidence in Mueller’s investigation was higher after the congressional hearings than it was before he completed his work.
From March 21 to March 22, March 26 to 28, April 30 to May 2, and July 25 to 28, we used Google Surveys, which is supporting this project with a large in-kind donation of access to its survey platform, to ask a variety of questions related to Mueller’s investigation. Respondents are internet users age 18 and older who answer “surveywall” questions on websites that use Google Opinion Rewards for Publishers to access content. Surveys appear on a network of more than 1,500 sites, including USA Today and the Financial Times. For more information on Google Surveys’ methodology, including questions regarding sampling bias and inferred demographics, please see Google’s white paper on the topic. Benjamin Wittes and Emma Kohse also discussed criticisms and advantages of the Google Surveys methodology at some length in this paper.