How Impeachment Is Being Spun

Welcome to The Spin Cycle, a semi-regular look at how the impeachment inquiry is being sold to the American public by Washington-types — both those who are looking to oust the president and those looking to save him.

The most marked quality of the last three years of American political life is the sheer number of news-making events that have occurred. Those events and their aftermath can be near-impossible to keep track of.

Impeachment has only complicated things, which is impressive, since the facts of the Democrats’ inquiry into President Trump’s pressuring of Ukraine seem relatively straightforward. But of course, impeachment is a political process, not a criminal one — the founding fathers were vague about what “high crimes and misdemeanors” meant, perhaps so that generations of lawyers could earn their nut figuring it all out.

Impeachment, as it turns out, is really about politicians selling the public on the facts as they’d like them interpreted; it’s a public relations operation as much as a constitutionally-allotted power. We decided it makes sense not just to keep track of the inquiry’s pile of evidence, but to also track how politicians are interpreting that evidence and how the public responds to their spin. We are interested, in other words, in how the facts get laundered.

The facts are themselves crucially important, of course. But finding the truth in politics often means wading through ankle-deep, barnyard-sweet bullshit. The spin. The grandstanding. The press conferences in front of helicopters and flags.

So let’s be organized about this and lay things out as they are on October 11, from facts to spin to public opinion.

The inquiry’s central facts

If the Ukraine impeachment scandal was a dish of Chicken Kiev, think of these facts as the chicken breast, pounded thin under the pressure of high-wattage political scandal: On July 25, President Trump had a call with the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky. During the call, Trump pressured Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden’s son, Hunter. Text message exchanges between Trump officials and advisors to Zelensky later revealed that the Trump administration was in negotiations to secure the investigation — the Americans dangled a visit to the White House as bait. Around the same time, the White House blocked $400 million in aid to Ukraine, suggesting that the Ukrainians may have faced additional pressure to comply with Trump’s request.

An ever-expanding cast of characters animates those central facts. There’s the CIA whistleblower whose formal complaint about Trump’s call with Zelensky allowed all of these facts to be spilled out into public view — he’s the herbed butter of the Chicken Kiev, bursting with flavorful information. (Ok, I’ll stop.) He has been followed in recent days by a new whistleblower, who reportedly has first-hand knowledge of Trump’s Ukraine interactions.

And just this week, two associates of the president’s lawyer and America’s (former) mayor, Rudy Giuliani, were arrested and indicted for violating campaign finance law. The indictment says they helped funnel foreign money to candidates for office. The men, American citizens born in eastern Europe, appeared to be part of a pressure campaign to remove the American ambassador to Ukraine — reportedly at the behest of Giuliani — from her post.

The political spin

The Democrats

The Democrats are waging a two-front war of sorts: one in the hearing rooms of the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and the other on the 2020 campaign trail.

On the Congressional front: In her September 24 speech opening up the impeachment inquiry, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said: “The president has admitted to asking the president of Ukraine to take actions which would benefit him politically. The actions of the Trump presidency revealed dishonorable facts of betrayal of his oath of office and betrayal of our national security and betrayal of the integrity of our elections.” She was saying the president has already committed an impeachable offense and that we already have the evidence of him doing so. No spin needed.

Of course, “no spin needed, just the facts” is a spin of its own. “Every new piece of information has corroborated the basic facts, which are devastating for the president,” Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney told the Times, in a perfect demonstration of the restrained (for now) party line.

To reinforce their fact-gathering mode, on October 4, Democrats sent a subpoena notice to the White House for documents relating to the Ukraine dealings. Failure to comply, the letter said, “shall constitute evidence of obstruction.” Other administration officials have since received subpoenas, as well.

On the campaign front: Democrats running for president have caught onto the idea that the de rigueur line on impeachment is “the facts speak for themselves.” Speaking at a campaign event on October 5, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who has run a campaign based on what she’d have you believe is a core Midwestern ethos of not rocking the boat, said, “I think that all of us believe that the evidence is there.”

Joe Biden has been slow to stir up big news when it comes to the impeachment drama, perhaps because it’s his family’s name being dragged through the scandal. But on October 9, Biden called clearly for the president to be impeached, not just to be investigated, which was further than he’d gone in his previous comments on the matter.

The Republicans

There’s a lot going on here. It started out a little messy but a couple of weeks in, the party line on the impeachment inquiry seems to have coalesced into, “It’s a partisan witch hunt!” and stall, stall, stall.

On October 8, the White House counsel wrote back to congressional Democrats’ document subpoenas with an elaborate, eight-page long “hell no.”

Calling the inquiry “constitutionally illegitimate,” the White House is refusing to cooperate. On the substance of the call with the Ukrainian president, the letter concludes, “The record clearly established that the call was completely appropriate and that there is no basis for your inquiry.” The State Department also prevented Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union and a key player in the text message exchanges, from testifying before congress.

Trump, for his part, has spent the past few days trying to normalize the call with Ukraine and his requests to a foreign government to interfere in a U.S, election by investigating one of his political rivals. Trump’s 2020 campaign has released an ad that spins the phone call as innocent and the impeachment inquiry as an effort to overturn the results of the 2016 election. His Twitter timeline is a litany of tweets about the supposedly partisan nature of the whistleblower’s complaint, making liberal use of the phrase, the “Do Nothing Democrats,” and calling for Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, to be impeached.

Perhaps the most interesting twist, though, is the mixed response of Fox News. Tucker Carlson, a fanatical Trump supporter, co-wrote a column in which he said, “Donald Trump should not have been on the phone with a foreign head of state encouraging another country to investigate his political opponent … there’s no way to spin this as a good idea.” On Oct. 10, the New York Times reported that Attorney General Bill Barr had a private meeting on October 9 with Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox’s parent company. (“Succession” writers, take note.) The morning after the meeting, Trump tweeted angrily in a response to a Fox poll that found 51 percent of Americans think he should be impeached and removed from office. So, all is not well in the right’s political-media nexis; the inquiry is setting teeth on edge, not least the president’s.

How’s it all playing?

All in all, there’s more noise coming from the Republican side of things. For now, though, they’re not winning the public opinion battle. According to our impeachment tracker, support for impeachment has only strengthened over the past couple of weeks. At this writing, 49.3 percent of Americans support it and 43.5 percent oppose.

So for now, the Democrats’ arguments are convincing more voters than Republicans’. But I’ll be interested to see whether the White House efforts to stall and delay will create the impression that Democrats are unfairly persecuting the president. Even Republicans’ and independents’ support of impeachment has increased in recent days, though, according to the polls.

Given a Democratic debate coming up next week, it’s unlikely that Trump will have any reprieve from the talk of his impeachment. We’ll be keeping our eyes glued to his Twitter, and our ears perked for the emerging talking points.

FiveThirtyEight: The history of impeachment

How Has The Ukraine Scandal Affected Trump’s Approval Rating?

Shortly after news broke that President Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate a political rival, support for his impeachment increased sharply, according to our impeachment polling tracker. But the ramifications of the Ukraine scandal (and the resulting impeachment inquiry) for Trump’s reelection prospects are murkier.

If the effect of the Ukraine scandal is that people who already disliked Trump simply dislike him more, Trump’s reelection chances may not be hurt that much. As you can see in recent polls, much of the increased support for impeachment so far has come from Democrats, few of whom were probably planning to vote for Trump anyway.

So one other data point to keep an eye on is Trump’s approval rating — if the scandal is turning any supporters into opponents (or at least skeptics), it will show up there. It’s still early, so public opinion is still subject to a lot of change, but now that the scandal has had almost two weeks to unfold, we may be starting to see just that:

Then again, that movement could simply be noise or reversion to the mean.

As of Sept. 24 — the day House Speaker Nancy Pelosi formally announced an impeachment inquiry — Trump’s approval rating sat at an unusually high 43.1 percent. But today, his approval rating sits at 41.3 percent.1 That’s a nearly 2-point drop in a little over a week, suggesting that the Ukraine scandal may be giving Trump supporters second thoughts about the president. Two points isn’t a ton of movement, but as my colleague Geoffrey Skelley has written, Trump’s approval rating is incredibly stable, so even a shift of 1 or 2 points can be notable.

On the other hand, this also just brings Trump’s approval rating back to about where it was earlier in September. In fact, Trump’s 43.1 percent approval rating on Sept. 24 was his highest mark all year,2 and it’s possible that the uptick that got Trump there was just noise. If you look only at high-quality polls3 of Trump’s approval rating before and after news of the Ukraine scandal broke,4 there’s actually been little change in Trump’s popularity (if anything, it has ticked slightly up).

Trump’s approval rating hasn’t changed in high-quality polls

Change in Trump’s approval rating from before news snowballed of a whistleblower complaint involving President Trump, according to pollsters with FiveThirtyEight pollster ratings of at least an A-

Trump Approval Rating
Pollster Before Sept. 20 After Sept. 20 Change
Quinnipiac University* 38% 41% +3
Monmouth University 40 41 +1
Marist College 41 44 +3

* Quinnipiac also conducted a poll while the Ukraine scandal was still unfolding, from Sept. 19 to Sept. 23. Trump’s approval rating was 40 percent in that poll.

Source: Polls

Another possibility is that the Ukraine scandal reversed a mini polling comeback that Trump was enjoying in mid-September, and these high-quality polls missed it simply due to timing. The bottom line is, a lot of things could be happening here, and we should wait for more data.

In summary, here in the early days of the Ukraine/impeachment drama, Trump’s popularity has stayed within the narrow range it has inhabited since February (41.0-43.1 percent for his approval rating, 52.3-54.3 percent for his disapproval rating). In other words, the Ukraine scandal still hasn’t eaten into Trump’s true base of support.

But that doesn’t mean that his low approval rating won’t be a problem for him in 2020. There is a nontrivial difference between a 43 percent approval rating and a 41 percent approval rating, and at 41 percent or lower (if it continues to trend downward), it’ll be that much harder for him to win 46 percent of the popular vote like he did in 2016 (let alone improve on that performance). It’s too early to draw any conclusions for sure, but how Trump’s approval ratings change in the coming weeks will be among the most important consequences of this story.

How Views On Impeachment Have Changed In Just One Week

Independents Trust Mueller, Which Could Be Bad News For Trump

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

Poll of the week

A new survey has found that most Americans trust special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 election — although opinion is sharply split along partisan lines. Yet Mueller still receives higher marks than 1990s independent counsel Ken Starr, who faced a similar partisan divide. If party loyalty hasn’t changed in the past 20 years, what has? The views of independent voters.

According to a Washington Post-Schar School poll released this week, 51 percent of adults approve of the way Mueller is handling the investigation, while 34 percent disapprove. Similarly, 57 percent think Mueller is mostly interested in uncovering the truth, while 36 percent think he’s out to hurt President Trump politically. By contrast, a majority of Americans thought Starr was mainly interested in hurting then-President Bill Clinton politically in the Whitewater investigation.

During both the Starr and Mueller probes, members of the president’s party were convinced that the investigators had the knives out for their president, and members of the opposition party believed the investigators had noble intentions. Since the partisan divides are similar in both cases, independent voters are the main drivers behind the difference in overall public opinion. In 1998, as the Whitewater investigation was wrapping up, 59 percent of independents told the Post that they thought Starr’s investigation was politically motivated. This year, 57 percent said they have faith in Mueller.

The poll also suggests that independents may be the deciding factor in whether the public supports Trump’s impeachment, if it comes to that. Per the Post poll, if Mueller’s report finds that Trump obstructed justice by trying to undermine the Russia investigation, Americans believe — 65 percent to 29 percent — that Congress should impeach Trump and try to remove him from office.8 And if the report concludes that Trump authorized his campaign staff to collude with Russia, Americans support impeachment and attempted removal by a similar margin: 61 percent to 33 percent.

Those numbers may seem surprisingly high. But impeachment is a political process and, quite frankly, a partisan one. According to this poll and many others, most Democrats already support beginning impeachment proceedings against Trump — so right off that bat, that’s a sizable chunk of the country in favor. And this poll added a conditional to its question: “If Mueller’s report concludes….” Since independents mostly see Mueller as a fair judge, it makes sense that most of them would support impeachment if Mueller finds grounds for it. And indeed they do, at least in this poll: 61 percent support impeachment if Trump approved coordination with the Russian government, and 68 percent support impeachment if he obstructed justice.

By contrast, independents were not on board with attempts to remove Clinton from office, even after Starr’s report recommended impeachment. A Post/ABC News poll from December 1998 found that three out of four independents said that Clinton should not be removed from office. Most Republicans wanted Clinton removed, while most Democrats wanted him to stay put. Overall, support for removal sat at just 33 percent.

A key difference may have been that Americans, especially independents, were not convinced that Starr had proved his case. The public widely believed that the inclusion of explicit sexual details in the Starr report was inappropriate, and, as previously mentioned, independents did not believe Starr was conducting an impartial investigation. It’s possible that, if the Mueller report is publicly released, people will find his conclusions similarly lacking. But the questions from this week’s poll suggest that the public would believe Mueller if he concludes Trump committed a crime. Of course, that’s a big if; should Mueller stop short of such a declaration, it’s a safe bet that support for impeachment would not be in the 60s.

Other polling nuggets

  • According to another Washington Post-Schar School poll, 47 percent of Virginians think their governor, Democrat Ralph Northam, should resign in the wake of the revelation that there is a racist photo on his page in his 1984 medical school yearbook. Another 47 percent said Northam should remain in office. Northam originally apologized and said he was one of the people in the photo (which features one person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe). But Northam reversed himself the next day. He currently maintains he was not in the photo but has admitted to wearing blackface on a different occasion.
  • A poll conducted for The New York Times Upshot by Morning Consult found that 5 percent of U.S. adults admitted to wearing blackface at some point in their lives. Twenty percent said they’d seen someone wearing blackface.
  • According to a different Morning Consult survey, for Politico, Republicans are more willing than Democrats to vote for a politician from their own party who has been accused of either wearing blackface or committing sexual misconduct. However, committing tax fraud and misusing taxpayer dollars, among some other scandals, were about equally likely to be deal-breakers for members of both parties.
  • According to a survey by HuffPost/YouGov, 42 percent of Americans think the Democratic Party is too extreme. Forty percent think the Republican Party is too extreme. But in both cases, those people tend to be members of the opposite party; only 12 percent of members of each party find their own party too extreme. And only 11 percent of Americans think both parties are too extreme.
  • and HarrisX found that Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the most popular Supreme Court justice, based on the share of registered voters who say they have a “very” or “somewhat” favorable view of her (43 percent). Brett Kavanaugh is the best-known justice — only 9 percent of respondents have never heard of him — but that fame comes at a cost: He also has the highest unfavorable rating of any justice, with 34 percent viewing him in a negative light. Stephen Breyer has the lowest name recognition of any justice; 32 percent said they’ve never heard of him.
  • Amazon has canceled its plan to build a headquarters in New York City in the face of opposition from residents and some politicians. However, a Siena College poll of registered voters in New York state that was released before Thursday’s announcement found that 56 percent approved of the package of tax incentives that New York used to lure the company, while 36 percent disapproved. In New York City alone, 58 percent approved and 35 percent disapproved.

Trump approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, 41.5 percent approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while 54.1 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -12.6 points). At this time last week, 40.1 percent approved and 55.3 percent disapproved (for a net approval rating of -15.2 points). One month ago, Trump had an approval rating of 40.7 percent and a disapproval rating of 54.4 percent, for a net approval rating of -13.7 points.

From ABC News: