WASHINGTON - Much attention was paid to a recent poll that suggested Republicans no longer trust the FBI — as it investigates President Donald Trump's Russia ties, the federal police force is now viewed favourably by just 38 per cent of voters of the traditional law-and-order party.
Much less attention was paid to an important subset of Republicans: the undecideds.
In that same survey, 33 per cent of Republican respondents expressed ''a little'' confidence in the FBI to investigate Trump-Russia matters, more than the 27 per cent of Republicans in that same Axios survey whose confidence measured "a great deal" or "a lot."
Those findings are consistent with another poll this week for Politico. A sizable minority of Republicans there wanted an investigation — 40 per cent wanted Trump to testify, 25 per cent thought the probe was being handled very or somewhat fairly, and another 24 per cent weren't sure.
The fence-sitters are now being pulled in separate directions. Where they land could decide whether Trump's presidency weathers the Russia affair.
On one side, there's the Russia scandal covered by most of the mainstream media.
It involves — deep breath — Trump's business ties to Russian money-launderers; his refusal to release tax returns; his foreign-policy adviser investigated for being a suspected Russian asset since 2013; another adviser heard gossiping that Russia had stolen Clinton emails, then lying to the FBI, and pleading guilty for that; family contacts with Wikileaks and a Russian lawyer; a campaign manager charged with laundering money from a pro-Russia Ukrainian party; staff omitting Russian contacts on federal paperwork; Trump firing the FBI chief investigating all of it; attacks on investigators; refusal to call out Russian election-meddling; foot-dragging on sanctions passed by Congress; and skepticism about NATO.
That Gordian knot will probably get worse for the Republicans, says a Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee. Sheldon Whitehouse has seen the federal documents behind the infamous Devin Nunes memo — including some Nunes himself hasn't seen.
"What we know publicly is so shady," Whitehouse told a podcast hosted by Preet Bharara, a former New York district attorney who convicted Russian money-launderers operating out of Trump Tower — and fired last year by Trump himself.
"When you add in what ... people who've been either interviewed or are co-operating may have said to Mueller... there is a chance that when this report (from Mueller) comes out, it's not just a summary of what we know.
"It is actually a knock-down blow that causes Republicans and Democrats alike to say, 'OK, that has to be remedied. We have to act.'"
It's not a story that gets much attention from Fox News.
On that network, and on right-wing talk radio, Republicans are being pulled in the other direction — to view the Russia affair as a Matryoshka doll of meaninglessness. On Trump's favourite morning TV show, the real scandal is the plot against him.
The daily air campaign against the Russia probe starts with a 6 a.m. bombardment from the show, "Fox and Friends." The lead story one day last week suggested the bigger Russia controversy involves Hillary Clinton — uranium, her husband, and her husband's associate, Frank Giustra.
An on-air guest misidentified the associate as, "Giuffra," and described shady goings-on in the non-existent country of "Kazastan."
Next was a story about FBI investigators, based on a batch of text messages suggesting then-president Barack Obama had taken an interest in an FBI probe. A Republican senator who a few days earlier had admitted to misinterpreting a joke in the texts was back on the air, this time accusing Obama of meddling in the Clinton email probe.
However, as noted by guest Byron York, a reporter leading the inquiries into the alleged deep-state conspiracy against Trump, the FBI text message in question — "POTUS wants to know everything we're doing," it read — was sent in September 2016, weeks after the Clinton probe was closed.
Even so, York opined, it's still worth asking: what did Obama want to know about Russian election-meddling?
The new batch of texts also included an agent referring to communications on a separate phone about Clinton.
All of it was enough for Trump to tweet, with all-caps enthusiasm, about the "bombshell" texts. His son, Donald Jr., has a Twitter feed similarly filled with complaints about the probe. In some cases, fellow Republicans like Marco Rubio and Trey Gowdy have pushed back on the conspiracies populating his timeline.
Gowdy agrees it's worth exploring some of the more troubling issues raised in the Nunes memo — which he helped Nunes write. It's unclear, for instance, how much judges knew about the partisan source of intelligence before they handed out surveillance warrants on Trump adviser Carter Page.
But he steadfastly supports the Russia probe. Unlike Nunes, Gowdy has seen the warrant documents.
He says there are numerous things worth investigating — the meeting with the Russian lawyer at Trump Tower, an email sent by Trump data firm Cambridge Analytica, comments about Russian email-hacking by Trump adviser George Papadopoulos, and the possibility of obstruction of justice.
The Fox News hosts expressed exasperation over the state of affairs.
The whole probe started because Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself, allowing underling Rod Rosenstein to appoint Mueller, Steve Doocy lamented. "Oh, man," he sighed, shaking his head.
But the fight continues. A Tea Party group launched an attack ad against Rosenstein last week, accusing him of protecting liberals and deep-state holdovers, demanding: "Time for Rod Rosenstein to do his job — or resign."