Republicans' attitudes toward the FBI and other federal law enforcement officials appear to be turning more negative, at least in Texas, a new poll has found. President Trump and conservative pundits have been lashing out at the Justice Department's investigation into Russian meddling in last year's election.
The poll of 1,200 registered Texan voters by the University of Texas and Texas Tribune found 35 percent of Republicans have an unfavorable view of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Only 43 percent had a favorable view while 22 percent said they did not have an opinion, what one analyst called "a kind of reservation of judgment."
Those numbers surprised GOP officials and those who conducted the poll. Conservatives, and particularly southern conservatives, traditionally are key supporters and fans of law enforcement.
"I think all of this reflects the fact that almost everything connected with Donald Trump being in the White House right now is falling into an intensely partisan field" said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, which designed and analyzed the poll.
"On a deeper level, it means one more institution that is the subject of a real crisis in faith in the general public," Henson said. "And I think it is worrisome."
The FBI declined to comment. But the Texas poll could be evidence that a barrage of Trump tweets disparaging the FBI, DOJ and special counsel Robert Mueller, who was named to oversee the Russian meddling probe, are beginning to have an effect. Trump surrogates and supporters, including cable TV pundits, also have been hammering the FBI for being part of the so-called "deep state," federal agencies allegedly staffed by partisan Democrats who are quietly, even secretly, engaged in sabotaging Republicans and their policies.
The phrase "deep state" has become an important part of the nation's conservative lexicon in a short period of time. It began on the far right, the so called "alt-right," which views the federal government in general with deep distrust. The definition has a conspiratorial flavor: "deep," to those who embrace the theory, means out of sight and firmly entrenched.
Republican leaders in Texas say that while the words "deep state" may be recently in vogue, the ideas behind them certainly are not, at least not among many conservatives.
"Unfortunately, for far too long, careerists in government have been inclined to be for one side and against the other," said James Dickey, chairman of the Texas Republican Party, when asked about the poll.
The actions of former FBI Director James Comey undoubtedly played a big role, GOP operatives said. Comey placed himself in the middle of a presidential election, publicly commenting twice on an investigation into Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton's email server. While that mostly displeased Democrats, some of whom blamed him for costing her the presidency, Comey then testified before Congress and confirmed Trump's campaign was being investigated for possible collusion with the Russians.
That was a departure for a law enforcement agency that historically was viewed as above electoral politics. "Absolutely, there are trust issues and if you read it any other way, you'd be crazy," said Republican political consultant Bill Miller.
The unfavorable numbers among Texas' GOP voters were more than double the rate of Democratic voters — just 15 percent of whom have an unfavorable view of the bureau. Despite the investigation of Clinton's use of a private email server to handle sensitive documents, and Comey's public pronouncements about it, 51 percent of Texas Democrats nevertheless have a favorable opinion of the agency.
With just one poll of Texas voters, it's impossible to gauge to what extent the numbers are representative nationally. Republican leaders reached by NPR in several other states said they were surprised the unfavorable numbers were so high. But, if they do offer a glimpse into Republican feelings around the country, it raises the question of whether it could affect the FBI's ability to do its job, at least in Washington.
Tim Weiner, a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner who has written histories of the CIA and the FBI, said he doesn't think so.
"The FBI has investigated presidents before", Weiner said. "It investigated Richard Nixon. It investigated Ronald Reagan's national security team in the Iran-Contra case ... It famously investigated Bill Clinton for years and wound up drawing blood from the arm of the president as proof of his DNA that matched the infamous blue dress. So this isn't their first rodeo."
But the poll numbers may show that Trump's recent Tweets — including one that called Mueller's investigation "the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American history—led by some very bad and conflicted people!" — is helping him build political capital with his base. And that is capital he may need if he eventually decides to fire the special counsel.
Henson believes the undecided conservatives could quickly turn against the bureau and DOJ if Mueller announces criminal charges in his Russia probe.
"It means the dynamic is only likely to get worse as the investigations deepen," he said.
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President Trump has lashed out against his own Justice Department for how the agency has handled his travel ban. And the president has lambasted the former FBI director, James Comey. As a result, Republican voters' attitudes towards the FBI appear to be growing more negative, at least in Texas, where a poll found 35 percent of Republican voters view the agency unfavorably. Here's NPR's Wade Goodwyn.
WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: The joint University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll had a sample of 1,200 registered Texas voters. While conservatives and Southern conservatives in particular have long been fans of law enforcement generally, the polls showed the political controversies in Washington, D.C., appear to be driving a wedge between Texas Republicans and the FBI.
JIM HENSON: I think all of this reflects the fact that almost everything connected with Donald Trump being in the White House right now is falling into an intensely partisan field.
GOODWYN: Jim Henson is the director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, which designed and analyzed the poll.
HENSON: Only 43 percent of Republicans said that they had a favorable view of the FBI. And interestingly enough, 22 percent of Republicans said that they didn't really have an opinion, a kind of reservation of judgment.
GOODWYN: While 35 percent of Republican voters gave a thumbs-down to the FBI, that number was less by half among Texas Democrats. Just 15 percent of Democrats disapprove with a 51 percent approval rate. But for Texas Republicans who remain overwhelmingly loyal to President Trump, Henson says the president's Twitter attacks on the special counsel, the Justice Department and the FBI appear to be shaping his base's opinions.
HENSON: It means one more institution is a subject of a real crisis in faith in the general public. And that deep state phrase has become something that seemed like it began as a metaphor, but it now is being thought of very literally as defining the nature of national political institutions. And I think it is worrisome.
(SOUNDBITE OF MEDIA MONTAGE)
SEAN HANNITY: Hey. Welcome to "Hannity," and this is a Fox news alert. The deep state targets President Trump in a huge act of retribution.
LOU DOBBS: The left and the deep state are thrashing about now. They're fighting as hard as they can.
NEWT GINGRICH: This anti-conservative, anti-Trump pattern is very deep, and that's what the deep state is all about.
GOODWYN: For Sean Hannity, Lou Dobbs and Newt Gingrich, it's self-evident that federal agencies are populated primarily by partisan Democrats secretly engaged in sabotaging Republicans. This is the so-called deep state. And the Justice Department and the FBI are no longer exempt from conservative suspicions.
JAMES DICKEY: Well, the Obama administration politicized the Justice Department more fully than any administration I've seen in my lifetime.
GOODWYN: James Dickey is the chairman of the Texas Republican Party. Speaking from his cellphone at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., Dickey says even before the phrase deep state came into vogue, there has long been a feeling among Republicans that government employees are in the bag for the Democrats.
DICKEY: Unfortunately, for far too long, careerists in government have been inclined to be for one side and against the other.
BILL MILLER: You know, it's uncommon to see such misgivings for a federal agency like the FBI, particularly of a party that prides itself on sort of law and order. And that did surprise me, yes.
GOODWYN: Bill Miller is a veteran political consultant who's helped elect high-level Republican clients in Texas from governor on down. Miller blames fired FBI Director James Comey for the distrust on both sides of the aisle.
MILLER: Absolutely, there were trust issues. And if you read it any other way, you'd be crazy. I mean, if you look at Rick Perry, he won re-election to governor with 39 percent of the vote. So here's 35 percent saying they don't trust the FBI. That tells you a lot.
GOODWYN: With just one poll of Texas voters, it's impossible to gauge to what extent the numbers are representative nationally. But if these Texas poll numbers are indeed a glimpse into Republicans' feelings around the country, do they pose a political threat to the FBI's ability to do its job?
Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning author Tim Weiner doesn't think so. Weiner's books include histories of the CIA and the FBI.
TIM WEINER: No, I don't. And the FBI has investigated presidents before. It investigated Richard Nixon. It investigated Ronald Reagan's national security team in the Iran-Contra case. It famously investigated Bill Clinton for years. So this isn't their first rodeo.
GOODWYN: The FBI declined to comment for this story. But by polarizing against the FBI and tweeting that Robert Mueller's investigation is a, quote, "witch hunt led by bad people," the president is clearly building political capital with his base. It's political capital he may have to spend if he decides to fire the special counsel. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.