WASHINGTON (Circa) — Special Counsel Robert Mueller is not a politician, but he should still be watching his poll numbers, according to public policy experts.
Recent polls suggest Americans are losing patience for the man leading the investigation into President Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign and possible collusion with the Russian government. Nearly one year after the appointment of the special counsel, the polls were taken against the backdrop of escalating political attacks on Mueller and his team as well as mounting legal pressure on former Trump associates and the president himself.
CBS News released a poll this week showing the majority of Americans (53 percent) believe Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation is "politically motivated." Only 44 percent of respondents said the probe is "justified." An overwhelming majority of Republicans (88 percent) said they believe the investigation is political.
The poll reflects a shift in public attitude from five months ago, when 48 percent said the investigation was justified and only 44 percent believed it was motivated by politics.
The poll also found a major shift in Republicans' attitudes about the president cooperating with the special counsel. Last year, 73 percent of Republicans said Trump should cooperate with Mueller and sit for an interview. That number dropped 20 points in the latest survey.
A Rasmussen poll from April found a similar result when respondents were asked if they thought the Trump-Russia investigation was "an honest attempt to determine criminal wrongdoing" or "a partisan witch hunt." In the more strongly-worded survey, using language President Trump has used to describe the investigation, 40 percent said Mueller was conducting a "witch hunt." That number is up 8 points from 32 percent in 2017, again reflecting a shift in the public outlook.
The polls are not surprising given the high level of partisan conflict around Trump's presidency and the investigation, said Robert Shapiro, a Columbia University professor of political science specializing in public opinion.
"In terms of prospects and consequences, the poll numbers could be indicative of things turning in the direction of Trump and the Republicans," he suggested. Trump's job approval ratings have been inching up and averaged 43 percent in recent weeks.
As Trump and the Republicans gain more support and new polls suggest the public is losing patience with the Mueller probe, "that will motivate them and give them justification," he said. "That will bolster their courage and it will also bolster their position."
There is no obvious magic number or tipping point in public opinion polls where President Trump could justify firing Mueller or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who is overseeing the investigation.
According to Jed Handelsman Shugerman, a law professor at Fordham University, the poll showing a majority of Americans believe Mueller's investigation is politically motivated suggests that tipping point could come soon. "The attacks are working," he said of White House and Republican efforts to discredit the special counsel.
As long as the public generally sees Mueller as an honest broker and supports his investigation, Republican Party leaders watching the polls will be more inclined to defend the special counsel, Shugerman explained. "But once partisan attacks on Mueller hurt his poll numbers, there's a concern that Republicans won't defend his job security," he said. "Together they send a signal that firing Mueller would not trigger serious consequences," which he said is a mistake.
In terms of public opinion, a small minority of voters have said they would support Trump firing Mueller. In March, fewer than less than one in five voters supported the idea. Another poll found Republicans largely opposed with only 25 percent saying Trump should get rid of Mueller.
A bipartisan group in the Senate introduced a bill to legally protect the special counsel from being fired. In late April, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 14 to 7 in favor of the bill, but the Republican leadership said they will not bring the bill to the floor.
According to Shapiro, the polls on Mueller will also have repercussions in the upcoming midterm elections. "The election is going to be a referendum on the Trump administration and the Republicans," he said. Voter's feelings about the investigation will figure in, likely to the benefit of Republicans, he said. "These poll results are certainly better news than the Republicans have had," he said, noting events could also quickly turn against them.
Shugerman agreed that the polls are more reflective of voters consolidating around their party rather than Mueller's investigation into Trump-Russian collusion investigation. "This may reflect a broader trend of base Republicans coming back to their base," he said.
Trump's approval ratings wavered throughout his first year in office, but appear to be stabilizing around 40 percent. That number tracks with numbers who see the Russia investigation as a "witch hunt" and a recent CNN poll, where 36 percent of respondents said the Russia investigation is mainly an effort to discredit Trump's presidency.
In recent weeks, the White House has taken a more aggressive approach toward the special counsel. As Mueller and Rosenstein narrow in on Trump's former attorney and confidante Michael Cohen, it has raised fresh questions about Trump's willingness to fire Mueller, Rosenstein or Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The FBI raided Cohen's New York office April 9 and seized documents related to his work for Donald Trump, including a $130,000 settlement to adult film actress Stormy Daniels. In the course of Mueller's investigation, he found cause to refer Cohen to the U.S. Attorney's office in the Southern District of New York for a criminal investigation. Rosenstein made the referral.
After the raid, Trump and his team went on the offensive. Trump attacked Mueller's team as biased and "conflicted" arguing the investigation should have never been started. Asked directly if he would fire Mueller in response to the Cohen raid, the president responded, "We'll see what happens. Many people have said, 'you should fire him.'"
Since then, Trump targeted his own Justice Department saying on more than one occasion that he may get "involved" and "use the powers granted to the Presidency" to handle officials he claimed are politically biased.
The president's legal team also shifted into attack mode. In mid-April, Trump hired former New York Mayor and federal prosecutor Rudy Giuliani who said he accepted the position to "negotiate an end to this," referring to the Russia investigation. Last week, Giuliani publicly called on Attorney General Sessions to "step in and close" the probe.
Vice President Mike Pence was the latest White House official to join the chorus of voices calling for Mueller to bring the investigation "to completion." In a Thursday interview with NBC News, he stated, "In the interests of the country, I think it's time to wrap it up."
According to a recent Monmouth University poll, a growing percentage of voters share Pence's sentiment. While a majority of Americans support Mueller's investigation, an April survey found 43 percent believe the investigation "should end," compared to 47 percent who said the same in March. The number of people say the probe should continue was only 54 percent, reflecting a 6 percent drop in support between March to April.
"As time goes on here, the expectations were that Mueller would have reached some kind of closure on this," Shapiro said. "The longer it drags out I think the more impatient people are going to get, and the Republicans even more so." New revelations about Michael Cohen could extend that timeline, he suggested.
Reports surfaced this week that Cohen received more than $1 million from a U.S. company linked to a Russian oligarch later sanctioned under the Trump administration. Citing sources familiar with the matter, CNN reported the Russian oligarch had been questioned by Mueller's team. Cohen denied the payments.
With few leaks coming out of the special counsel's office, the public and the subjects of the Mueller investigation can only speculate how much longer it will go on. Since taking over the investigation May 17, 2017, Mueller has indicted 19 people and 3 three companies. Four individuals have pleaded guilty.