Republicans have soured on the FBI, reflecting Trump’s attacks, poll shows

President Trump fired former FBI Director James B. Comey last year, part of a continued feud with the law enforcement bureau's leadership that has helped sour Republican views of the agency, a new poll indicates.
President Trump fired former FBI Director James B. Comey last year, part of a continued feud with the law enforcement bureau’s leadership that has helped sour Republican views of the agency, a new poll indicates.
(J. Scott Applewhite / AP)

Republicans, once solid backers of law enforcement, have turned against the FBI in the past year, suggesting that President Trump’s attacks on the bureau and its leadership have had a significant impact.

By contrast, views of most other federal agencies have held steady or improved, according to a new survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, which periodically has asked Americans what they think about major parts of the federal government.

The public’s view of some agencies shows a sharp partisan split, most notable with attitudes toward ICE, the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency that some Democrats have recently campaigned to abolish.


For most of the past decade, however, the FBI’s image soared above the typical partisan divide. About seven in 10 Americans, regardless of party, had a positive impression of the bureau, with the rest dividing among negative feelings and no opinion.

That bipartisan consensus started to break down in 2016, likely reflecting the belief among many Republicans that the FBI was failing to pursue what Trump claimed were examples of wrongdoing by Hillary Clinton.

That small shift turned into a big one after Trump’s inauguration. In his first year, Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey Jr. and repeatedly accused the bureau of participating in a “witch hunt” because of its probe into his campaign’s possible links to Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Since early 2017, backing for the FBI among people who identify themselves as Republicans or independents who lean toward the GOP has dropped 16 points. Republicans now divide about evenly in their views of the FBI, 49% favorable, 44% unfavorable, down from roughly 3-to-1 support just a year ago.

Although many Democratic activists blame Comey’s actions for costing Clinton the election, favorable views of the FBI among self-identified Democrats and independents who lean Democratic has gone up slightly in the last two years. More than three-quarters of Democrats now have a favorable view of the FBI.


Get the latest news from the nation’s capital on Essential Washington >> »

In the current poll, 41% either identified as Republican (26%) or independents who lean Republican (15%), while 44% identified as Democrats (29%) or independents who lean Democratic (15%).

Trump’s attacks on the FBI don’t appear to have rubbed off on the larger Justice Department, of which the FBI is part. Republican views of the Justice Department have become more favorable since Trump’s inauguration, while Democrats’ views have soured, a typical pattern when control of the executive branch changes party.

The most favorable image among the agencies the poll asked about belongs to the National Park Service, which 83% view positively and only 7% negatively.

At the other end of the scale is ICE, which 44% view favorably and 47% unfavorably, including 28% who say they have a “very unfavorable” view.


Partisans divide starkly over ICE, much as they do over immigration policy in general. Nearly eight in 10 people who identify themselves as conservative Republicans view the agency favorably, while slightly more than eight in 10 self-identified liberal Democrats view it unfavorably.

“Abolish ICE” recently has spread as a slogan among Democratic activists, and the poll suggests there could be a lot of room for that issue to thrive on the party’s left. A majority of those who identify as liberal Democrats said they had a “very unfavorable” view of ICE, with only about one in 10 saying they viewed the agency favorably.

The Pew survey was conducted by telephone, including landlines and cellphones, July 11-15 among 1,007 American adults. The results have a margin of error of 3.7 percentage points in either direction for the full sample.

For more on Politics and Policy, follow me @DavidLauter