Is Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation in trouble? Officially, the answer is no. But the results of a new IBD/TIPP Poll suggest that many Americans are highly skeptical of both Mueller and the ongoing investigation into Russian meddling in last year's election.
Mueller was named to be special counsel after President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in May. Comey was investigating claims that Russia interfered in the U.S. election and that the Trump campaign may have colluded with Russian officials.
Since then, Mueller himself has come under fire for hiring a number of prosecutors who donated to Hillary Clinton, which some see as a possible conflict of interest.
"I can say that the people that have been hired are all Hillary Clinton supporters," Trump said on "Fox and Friends" in late June.
Other Republicans, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, echo that sentiment. "The fix is in," Gingrich said in an interview with The Daily Caller. "This is the establishment counterattacking legally when they lost politically."
Moreover, one of the prosecutors that Mueller added to his team, Andrew Rosenstein, previously worked for U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whom Trump also fired. And Mueller and Comey, his successor at the FBI, are known to be close friends.
So, in the minds of many, the conflicts in the Mueller investigation are piling up, as the IBD/TIPP data clearly indicate. The IBD/TIPP Poll data were gathered June 23 to June 29.
Perhaps most seriously, among the 614 polled who say they're following the Russia story closely, 49% say that Special Counsel Mueller's friendship with former FBI Director James Comey represents a "conflict of interest for Mueller's investigation." Some 47% disagreed.
The results, no surprise here, skewed sharply according to party affiliation. A majority of Republicans (81%) and Independents (52%) said Mueller had a conflict of interest with his Comey friendship. Just 26% of Democrats agreed.
Meanwhile, even more poll respondents — including a surprising number of Democrats — felt a conflict existed in the fact that Mueller had interviewed with the White House to replace former FBI chief Comey, who stands at the center of the investigation into Russia's alleged tampering with the 2016 vote and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign.
Mueller was no stranger to the job, having held the post from 2001 to 2013, under both President Bush and President Obama. Based on that, it should be no surprise that the White House would want to interview him.
But the IBD/TIPP Poll shows Americans seem bothered by this. Some 52% agreed that Mueller's job interview was a conflict of interest going forward for the investigation, while just 40% disagreed. No surprise that 70% of Republicans and 52% of Independents felt this was a problem. But 41% of Democrats also did.
As for the charge that many of the lawyers hired by Mueller for his team were Hillary Clinton supporters, just 44% agreed that this was a "legitimate concern," while 52% disagreed. But again, Republicans (83%) and Independents (51%) were a majority thinking it was a concern. Just 13% of Democrats did.
In June, IBD/TIPP found that nearly half of those polled agreed that the Russian investigation is a "political 'witch hunt' aimed at getting the president impeached," rather than a legitimate effort to investigate a possible crime. The Mueller investigation is just getting underway, but already it's not very popular.
So what does all this mean? Once again, it's clear that the public is sharply split along partisan lines when it comes to nearly anything having to do with President Trump. But the poll also suggests a deep unease among Americans over the Mueller investigation and the many questions swirling around it.
A protracted fishing expedition by the Mueller team might anger Trump followers and other Republicans. If so, either Trump or Congress could put a crimp in the investigation. Trump has the ultimate power to fire any federal prosecutor, and Congress, which is engaged in multiple investigations of its own of the Russian allegations, can also block Mueller's inquiry.
"The rules provide only so much protection," wrote Neal Katyal, who created the special counsel rules back in 1999 while serving as acting U.S. solicitor general, in the Washington Post. "Congress, Trump and the Justice Department still have the power to stymie (or even terminate) Mueller's inquiry."
The investigation could last for months, even years. But even after a year of investigating Russia's involvement in our most recent presidential election, no evidence of collusion has yet been produced.
Comey said publicly that Trump was not a target of their investigations. The White House has said Mueller is not investigating Trump, although The Washington Post has reported that the special counsel is looking into possible obstruction of justice by Trump.
Given that, and based on both public opinion about the investigation's apparent conflicts and the law that lets the president fire the special counsel if he wants, it will be very difficult for Mueller and his team to prosecute anything out of this.
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