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.