JoAnne Musial has no particular regard for Vladimir Putin, but she does trust Donald Trump. That’s enough for her to cast a suspicious eye toward the furor over Russian interference, campaign collusion and whatever allegations may await the president she backed in 2016.
“They think Putin is playing him,” said Musial, a 66-year-old retiree from Canadensis, Pennsylvania. “I think Trump is playing him a little bit. … That’s the gut feeling I’ve had: Everyone’s got it all backwards.”
The loyalty of Trump’s voters has been a political strength for the president through 18 tumultuous months in the White House. Now, while two-thirds of those supporters believe Russia interfered in the 2016 election, they tend to accept declarations by the president and his team that the allegations and investigations have been overblown or misdirected – a conclusion with potentially enormous consequences down the road.
If and when special counsel Robert Mueller releases a public report, those voters are poised to take any negative findings with a grain of salt. As the investigation has intensified, their predictions of how history will judge Trump’s presidency have risen.
“The longer it goes, the less faith I have it’s going to be anything but a circus act,” said Barney Clark, 51, a medical device account manager in St. Marys, Georgia.
John Karr, 75, a retiree in Federal Way, Washington, said he’s not sure Russia interfered – not that it matters to him, anyway. “No matter what happens and how many millions Mueller spends, he can’t do a damn thing about what they did or didn’t do,” he said.
Karr and others serve on USA TODAY’s Trump Voter Panel, a floating focus group that provides an occasional touch point with the president’s original supporters. They tend to be suspicious about Russia’s motives; many lived through the Cold War. But they’re split between viewing Russia as an “enemy” or as a “competitor,” which is the word Trump uses to describe Moscow. Some voiced concern over Trump’s controversial news conference with Putin after the Helsinki summit.
Even so, 17 of the 23 panel members who responded rated Trump’s policy toward Russia as “about right”; just five said it was “not tough enough.” One was undecided. In interviews by email and phone, most said their faith remained unshaken in Trump as a leader delivering on campaign promises.
They spoke as scrutiny continues of Russia’s role in the 2016 election and what role it may have in the midterm elections three months away. Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, is now being prosecuted on unrelated charges of financial fraud in the first trial by the special counsel. And Facebook has announced detection of a secret campaign to influence November’s election by stoking racial and other social divisions.
But almost all of these Trump supporters were willing to accept at least some of the many explanations that the president and his attorney, Rudy Giuliani, have offered – that there was no campaign collusion with Russia, or it wasn’t a crime if there was, and anyway, everybody does it. Some panelists said any collusion was with Hillary Clinton’s campaign, not Trump’s, an assertion the president has made that’s not supported by congressional investigations and others.
Trump continues to press his case with his enormous social media audience. On Twitter Wednesday, he called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to “stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now, before it continues to stain our country any further.” He wrote, “Bob Mueller is totally conflicted, and his 17 Angry Democrats that are doing his dirty work are a disgrace to USA!”
Those messages find a receptive audience among his core backers.
On Russia and Putin, “people act surprised they meddled,” said Francis Smazal, 55, a registered nurse from Marshfield, Wisconsin. “I would be more surprised if he didn’t.” Moscow is an adversary of the United States, Smazal noted: “Russia wants to prosper and survive, like we do. Sometimes that involves taking cookies away from us.”
Two-thirds of the panelists said they didn’t believe Russian interference was a threat in the midterm elections this fall or the presidential contest in 2020.
The 25-member group was drawn from Trump voters in the USA TODAY/Suffolk University polls. This was the seventh time they have been surveyed and interviewed about the president they helped elect.
Trump’s grip on the GOP
The findings underscore Trump’s formidable hold on the Republican Party. These voters support not only the president but also his supporters.
Nearly two-thirds said they’re less likely to vote for a congressional candidate who criticized the president – one reason few Republican candidates down the ballot have broken ranks with Trump, even when they privately disagree with him. Some Democratic candidates in states where Trump is popular, such as Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, also have taken pains to agree with the president when they can.
“If a candidate is against Trump, then he is against the economy and the working man,” said Karr, the Washington state retiree.
“I have voted in every primary this year, and I have absolutely cast my vote with that in mind,” said Carter, the account manager from Georgia. “So far, everything I’ve done leading up to the midterm has been to try to ensure the folks lining up behind the president are the ones on the ballot.”
When asked why they remain so loyal to Trump, nearly all the supporters offered the same message: He’s doing what he said he would do.
“I don’t see him as a typical politician,” as someone who says what he thinks voters want to hear, said Smazal, the Wisconsin nurse. “I feel his heart is really in what he’s doing here. I don’t agree with everything he says – I wish at times he would keep his mouth shut – but he is what he is. I feel he is true to his word.”
They cited his top achievements as the strong economy, the groundbreaking meeting with North Korea and the nomination of two conservative judges for the Supreme Court. His biggest disappointment or defeat was the failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act and his difficulty in pushing major legislation through Congress, panelists said. They blamed Democrats and establishment Republicans for that, not Trump.
“He’s brought the economy up, brought us out of a recession,” said Steven Spence, 71, a retiree from Mesa, Arizona. “You can get a job anywhere you want to, and that’s pretty much all that we can judge a president for. But he’s gone beyond that. He’s gone to North Korea. He’s gone to Russia.” That effort to negotiate with foes “makes me feel safe.”
But a handful of these voters do feel some qualms.
“I still think some of his ideas are good, but I don’t approve of the way he’s going about it, I guess,” said Pat Joliff, 61, of Rochester, Indiana. “His views aren’t bad. The person he is, is disappointing me. … He’s got his wife trying to prevent bullying, and he’s on Twitter calling people idiots.” She predicted history would judge Trump to be only a “fair” president.
Duane Gray, 65, a truck driver from Boise, Idaho, also said Trump would be seen as only a “fair” president, or even a “failed” one.
When asked whether he approved or disapproved of the job the president is doing, Gray was undecided. Trump’s biggest achievement so far was “beating Hillary,” he said. And his biggest defeat or disappointment? “Kissing Putin’s (butt) so many times.”
Trump has been “extremely weak” in dealing with Putin, he said.
Joliff called Russian hacking “a major thing” and wondered about why Trump wasn’t taking it more seriously.
“Is he oblivious? Being deceitful? Or does he just not have a clue? I don’t know, and that’s why I’m uneasy,” she said. “I don’t know which of those three it is, and I’m starting to lose trust because I don’t know what kind of person he is on those avenues.
“Is he being played and can’t figure it out?”
‘Great – but different’
For most surveyed, however, their predictions of how history will judge Trump’s presidency have improved. Half predicted he ultimately would be viewed as a “great” president, a slight increase since last fall. Three-fourths said he has done a better job than they expected when they voted for him. Just half said that three months ago.
Even some of those who are uneasy about Trump’s dealings with Russia volunteered that he probably has a plan in mind.
“He is a shrewd businessman first,” said Joe Canino, 63, of Summerville, South Carolina. “Don’t think for one second he is showing Putin all his cards.”
“I think that President Trump’s dealings with Russia are just right,” agreed David McDonough, 57, a plumber from Brownsburg, Indiana. “If you have an equal-power country, would you just talk big and tough? Would you go to war? Who is the winner in that? … Let the president do his job.”
Asked how history ultimately would judge Trump as president, McDonough said, “Great – but different.”