The Memo: Mueller charges come at vulnerable time for Trump

Special counsel Robert Mueller released several bombshells on Monday, and they exploded at an especially vulnerable time for President Trump.

Three polls in the past week have shown Trump hitting all-time lows with the public.

ADVERTISEMENTNow, the question is whether the new developments from Mueller — indictments against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his associate Richard Gates, as well as a plea deal with former campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos — will drive those numbers even lower.

“The whole game in politics is to expand your base,” said GOP strategist Rick Tyler, who was communications director for Sen. ’s (R-Texas) 2016 primary campaign. “Independents are moving away from [Trump] and he depended on them to get elected.”

The president’s tweets on Monday hit back hard amid the political danger.

“Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign. But why aren›t Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus????,” Trump tweeted on Monday morning. He followed up by insisting, “….Also, there is NO COLLUSION!”

The probe is deepening, however.

Papadopoulos has pleaded guilty to misleading FBI agents who questioned him on the topic. Legal documents filed by Mueller’s team assert that Papadopoulos met with an overseas professor with Russian ties who told him that Moscow had “dirt” on Trump’s election opponent, Democrat .

Jimmy Gurulé, a former assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice, said that it was “getting pretty hard” for the Trump administration to claim that there was no collusion in light of those claims.

Gurulé, now a professor at Notre Dame Law School, is among those who believe the charges against Manafort could push the former campaign chief to “flip.”

The indictment “exerts tremendous pressure on Manafort to cooperate with special counsel Mueller, if he has anything of value that he can contribute to the ongoing investigation,” Gurulé said.

Manafort faces charges of conspiracy and money laundering, as well as failing to report foreign bank accounts and failing to register as a foreign agent.

Manafort joined the Trump campaign in late March 2016, was promoted to campaign chairman in May of that year and was ousted in August.

Manafort and Gates pleaded not guilty to all charges at their initial court appearance on Monday afternoon. An attorney for Manafort, Kevin Downing, said in a statement, “President was correct. There is no evidence the Trump Campaign colluded with the Russian government.”

But there is no mistaking the fact that Trump is in a vulnerable place politically.

In a Gallup tracking poll released on Monday, only 33 percent of Americans approved of his job performance, the lowest mark he has ever received.

This came on the heels of one poll from Fox News and another commissioned jointly by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal, both of which showed Trump with 38 percent approval. In both cases, those were the lowest marks ever recorded for Trump in those surveys.

The polls also indicated erosion within the groups that Trump has leaned on most heavily.

In the Fox News poll, his support among white men without a college degree fell by 12 points since the previous month, to 56 percent from 68 percent. His approval rating among independents slid to 30 percent, whereas exit polls suggest that 46 percent of independents voted for him last November.

Asked about the polls during a media briefing on Monday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that the White House was focused on its push for tax reform and added, “I think that the economy continuing to grow and strengthen is something that will certainly change those numbers.”

But, Sanders added, “at the same time, I think these are some of the same polls that also said this president would never be president, so I don’t have a lot of confidence in them.”

Sanders has a point in at least one regard: Trump’s approval ratings among Republican voters hover around the 80 percent mark in most surveys. Unless that changes, GOP lawmakers have little incentive to abandon the president.

Trump has come under public criticism from high-profile Republicans in recent weeks, but none of his most notable detractors, from former President George W. Bush to Sen. (R-Ariz.), faces a competitive election anytime soon. Another GOP critic, Sen. (R-Ariz.), announced last week that he would no longer seek reelection next year.

Whit Ayres, a GOP consultant and pollster who worked with Sen. (R-Fla.) during last year’s primary, referred to Trump’s job approval among GOP voters as “the key number to watch.”

Its relative strength “is what has held up his overall numbers in the mid-to-high 30s, and that support among Republicans is what has caused most Republican officials to stand by him. If the job approval among Republicans starts slipping substantially, then that creates major political problems — greater than anything he has seen up to this point,” Ayres said.

Although Trump’s approval ratings are the lowest of any modern president at this point in his term, he could yet go lower, especially if the Russia probe reveals any more damaging information.

There is precedent for worse ratings: Bush had an approval rating of around 25 percent as he prepared to leave office amid two wars and a financial crisis.

That said, some experts caution that the Russia probe might not have as big an impact with the general public as it does among the media and Trump’s detractors.

David Winston, a Republican pollster who has in the past worked with former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), said he did not think the new developments in the Mueller probe would fundamentally shift public perceptions of Trump.

“At this point — rightly or wrongly — I think the Russian issue is being seen through partisan lenses,” he said on Monday afternoon. “I think today’s events didn’t change that.”

But others saw the indictments as a more pivotal breach of the Trump team’s defenses — and one with unpredictable political consequences.

“In terms of the Trump campaign claiming that this is a witch hunt … I think the events today have closed the door on that response,” Gurulé said on Monday. “Now the question is, where do things proceed from here?”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

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