BROOKFIELD, Wis. – They see the Russia investigation as President Donald Trump does, as a witch hunt that has expanded far beyond its initial mandate with the explicit aim of delegitimizing or perhaps even overturning his 2016 election victory.
Yet these most steadfast of Trump supporters who gathered here Tuesday night as part of a focus group evaluating public opinion said the president ought not fire special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, a view shared by the Trump critics around the table.
“People would be suspicious,” said Betsy Novak, 55, a greenhouse worker who voted for Trump.
“It [would be] hiding something,” said Curt Hetzel, 48, a shipping and receiving manager who also voted for Trump.
“Politically, it would be a terrible idea,” said yet another Trump backer, Sam Goldner, 25, a warehouse manager.
These three were among the 12 men and women assembled for a two-hour focus group in this Milwaukee suburb, a perennial suburban swing area in a state that helped propel Trump to a surprise victory and is home to competitive Senate and gubernatorial contests this fall.
The opinions voiced here Tuesday night about Trump’s governing record and conduct in office – as well as the intensifying Mueller investigation – largely split along party lines, a vivid illustration of the deep divides across the country ahead of the November midterm elections.
“Partisan America is alive and well in Wisconsin,” Peter D. Hart, a longtime Democratic pollster who led the focus group here on behalf of Emory University, said in reflection. “I felt that people are pretty frozen in place. The one thing they agreed with was Robert Mueller should not be fired. That’s about as close as they get to a unified position.”
The dozen people were selected as part of Emory University’s “Dialogue with America” focus group series because of their diverse backgrounds and because they make up a cross-section of political attitudes, though their statements are not a scientific representation of overall opinion.
Asked to name their favorite president in their lifetimes, half said Ronald Reagan, three said Barack Obama and one each said Trump, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.
Overall, they were pessimistic about the state of the country as Trump nears 500 days in office, with all but two saying the nation was more divided than it is united. They overwhelmingly used negative words to describe America today: “Frenetic,” “bad,” “tense,” “chaotic,” “uncivil,” “unrest” and “indecisive.”
“We’re constantly battling,” said Michael Ross, 36, a judicial assistant who supported Hillary Clinton over Trump.
Though the group was quick to give Trump credit for the steady economy, job growth and changes to the tax code, they also blamed the president for a host of national ailments – from racial unrest to a decline in credibility and an intentional blurring of the truth by disputing facts.
All 12 of the assembled voters said they were following news about the Mueller probe, and their views of the special counsel were colored by their feelings about the president. Those who oppose Trump described Mueller as “intelligent,” “respected,” “smart,” “diligent” and “unstoppable.” But Trump’s supporters called the former Marine Corps captain and FBI director “unethical,” “desperate,” “partisan” and “a liar.”
Meredith Legree, 36, a physician’s assistant who voted for Trump, said, “This investigation’s ongoing because people aren’t happy that Trump is in power and they’re looking for any way to get him out.”
But Michelle Price, 52, a medical research assistant who voted for Clinton, said Mueller must keep following the facts. Of Trump, she said, “his character is making me believe that [collusion] did happen. I want them to keep investigating and let me know for sure.”
Added Atanu Deb Baruah, 48, a marketing director who also backed Clinton, “Let the investigators continue. Let them do their job. Let’s not try to obstruct.”
Trump’s opponents delivered even scathing assessments, indicating that the president has significant work to do to expand his base of support. Two people called him “untrustworthy,” and others said he was “immoral,” “not credible,” a “liar” and “disgusting.”
“I have a daughter,” said Steven Midthun, 54, a public schools librarian who voted for Clinton.
But Trump’s backers said they saw the president as a bold innovator who has been misrepresented by the media.
“He’s not given a fair shot,” Novak said.
The focus group participants spoke with particular disdain for leaders in Congress. Asked to assess House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., who represents a nearby district and is retiring at the end of the year, they were lukewarm, describing him as “a good person” and “smart,” but “not the right personality for the job” and “done.”
Asked about House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who could succeed Ryan as speaker should Democrats retake the House majority, 10 of the 12 people used negative descriptions. She was described as “hyperbolic” and “unethical,” and five people said she was either “too old,” “done” or “time to retire.”
Some of the Trump backers showed flashes of dissatisfaction with the president. Asked to describe him in one word, Hetzel chose “egotistical,” explaining, “He’s so used to just getting his way.”
Hetzel and other Trump backers agreed that their biggest disappointment in the president has been his tweets and decisions to engage on what they see as petty issues.
“It’s almost childish,” Hetzel said. “You’re a 70-something-year-old man and you’re president of the United States. You should be a little more mature and pick better subjects to be tweeting about.”
Another supporter of the president, Randy Cera, said Trump’s tweets make him vulnerable in the media.
“The tweets are fuel for the fire,” said Cera, 52, an insurance agent. “It helps validate the negativity.”
Despite their misgivings, however, these voters exhibited loyalty to Trump – going so far as to continue the president’s personal feud with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., even as he is at home battling brain cancer. McCain has tangled with Trump and opposed high-profile administration priorities, and this past week the White House has refused to apologize for communications aide Kelly Sanders joking in an internal meeting about McCain being irrelevant because “he’s dying anyway.”
While other focus group participants called McCain heroic or strong or patriotic, Cera said the Arizona senator was “petty.” And Stephen Rozmenoski, 66, a machinist, labeled him a “turncoat,” presumably because of his vote against the Republican health-care bill last year, for which Trump repeatedly has attacked McCain.
“If anybody has a doubt about how solid the Trump core is, come listen to this group,” Hart said. “They couldn’t even find a nice word to say about John McCain.”