As the scandal over the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia continues to consume all of the oxygen in Washington—with issues like healthcare only getting the chance to breathe during short interregnums between news dumps—it’s important for those of us holed up in Dupont circle offices to remember that things are playing differently outside the capital.
A new Huffington Post/YouGov poll (which the Hill summarizes here) offers two pieces are information that help understand the political impact of the Russia revelations in the public at large. First, more Republican voters think the meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a lawyer with Kremlin ties was appropriate than inappropriate, by a more than 2-1 margin (47 to 22 percent).
If you live in Washington and get your news from Twitter, you will have noticed a major shift after the Trump Jr. revelations. From the beginning of Trump’s presidency, most elite conservative writers and commentators—even those who did not support Trump during the election—had been for the most part putting the brakes on the more extreme Russia allegations. There was some cause for concern, sure, but no actual evidence of collusion, and Democrats were leaning way over their skis.
Elite conservative opinion has shifted markedly. Andrew McCarthy, the former prosecutor who had consistently and compellingly defended the Trump administration against Russia allegations, wrote a powerful piece in National Review raising the prospect of impeachment after it surfaced that high level Trump staff had met with a Russian lawyer and lied about it. The Federalist, which had consistently highlighted and mocked Russia hysteria, ran a piece calling the meeting “shady as hell.” Ross Douthat, a Russia conspiracy skeptic, wrote in the New York Times that he could no longer give the President the benefit of the doubt. Outside of avowed Trump loyalists, the anti-anti Trump arguments on journalist Twitter have been few and far between. It would be hard to find a Republican in Washington who actually thinks that Trump Jr.’s contact with Russians is no big deal. Even the Breitbart staff was shocked.
And yet despite this unmistakable, watershed shift, Republican voters appear to be (mostly) unmoved. This is a reminder of how marginal D.C. media is when it comes to shaping the opinion of the mass of actual conservatives in the heartland—a lesson learned during the primary election, but worth keeping in mind during this tumultuous time as well. The D.C. media environment is a simply a different world from what most conservative voters are exposed to. As long as the GOP controls both houses of Congress, it’s possible for a scandal to play out 24/7 for months on virtually all mainstream media platforms without it actually moving the needle politically.
Second, voters as a whole aren’t nearly as concerned with the Russia issue as those of us in Washington might think. Just 12 percent of Americans—20 percent of Democrats, 12 percent of Independents, and 2 percent of Republicans—rate Trump’s relationship with Russia among the top two issues they are concerned about. The Russia issue is dwarfed by healthcare, the economy, and immigration. Meanwhile, for virtually every person who does politics for a living in Washington, Democrat or Republican, Russia is number one.
Taken together, these are a reminder that the relevant divide when it comes to Russia isn’t so much between Democratic and Republican voters—even though most Democratic voters think there was Trump-Russia malfeasance, it is not a particularly high priority—but between people in Washington and people outside. In a recent interview, Trump said of the Russia scandal, “I think what’s happening is, as usual, the Democrats have played their card too hard on the Russia thing, because people aren’t believing it… a lot of the Democrats feel — they say, we’re putting all our money into this Russia stuff and it’s making Trump stronger.”
As disturbing as the latest revelations are—and there are surely more to come—Trump may not be so far off the mark. He has not been dealt anywhere near a fatal blow—at least, not yet.