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Is the FBI impartial? Over half of Republicans say ‘no.’

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 9/15/2022 Jan Zilinsky , Sean Kates , Jonathan Ladd , Joshua Tucker
Former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla. © Joe Raedle/Getty Images Former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla.

Since the FBI executed a warrant to obtain White House documents from former president Donald Trump’s residence at Mar-a-Lago, Trump supporters have flooded the media with outrage. Much of that has been aimed at the FBI and at the Justice Department, which secured the warrant.

But these attacks are only the most recent. Trump has been attacking the FBI as biased since early in his presidency.

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Evaluations of government branches and agencies have long been colored by citizens’ partisan affiliations. For instance, people tend to think more highly of the presidency when their party’s candidate is in office. But for the past 20 years — until before Trump’s election in 2016 — both Democrats and Republicans mostly supported the FBI. In fact, in keeping with their reputation as the party of law and order, Republicans supported the FBI more strongly than did Democrats, no matter who sat in the White House.

That support has shifted starkly since 2016 — and, as we have found, in two waves of the American Institutional Confidence Poll. In fact, our polls suggest even more political polarization toward the FBI.

How we did our research

The AIC Poll is a nationally representative survey of adults, administered by YouGov using its online panel. Its two survey waves were conducted in 2018 and 2021, with 5,400 individuals interviewed in the first wave, and 4,070 last year. Of this latter number, nearly 2,400 were repeat respondents from the first wave, allowing us to chart opinion shifts among this sample. For all findings discussed in this article, we reweighted the survey results to align our samples to the general population.

In each wave, we asked respondents what party they supported, if any, and how much confidence they felt in a variety of government institutions, on a scale from 1 to 4, with 1 meaning “No Confidence” and 4 indicating “A Great Deal of Confidence.” Confidence in the executive branch as a whole roughly flipped between Republicans and Democrats over the two waves, depending on which party held the White House, but confidence in most of the other institutions in the figure stayed about the same.

Republicans in both waves held the FBI in much lower esteem than either local police or the military, considering the bureau closer to the reviled “press” and President Biden’s executive branch than to the other “law-and-order” institutions.

We interpret these rankings as revealing respondents’ feelings about an institution’s competence and trustworthiness. We are interested in these numbers in part because low confidence in a government agency’s competence could erode support for democratic governance.

Presidents can't declassify documents with Green Lantern superpowers

Which Republicans believe the FBI is politically biased?

That’s even more true when these feelings are combined with beliefs or accusations of political bias — which our findings suggest is currently true for much of the Republican Party. When asked whether they believe that the FBI treats both parties equally or whether it favors a particular party, over 34 percent of identified Republicans stated that the FBI “strongly favors the Democratic Party.” Another 26 percent of Republicans believe the organization “slightly” favors Democrats. This represents a majority of surveyed Republicans, and dwarfs the 8 percent of Democrats who believe the FBI favors their own party or the 21 percent that believe that the FBI favors the Republicans, either slightly or strongly.

So which Republicans think the FBI is biased against their party? That belief is especially strong among tea party supporters, people with highly favorable views of Trump, early Trump endorsers, those who believe Trump really won the 2020 election, and those who viewed the storming of the U.S. Capitol in January 2021 as justified.

Other Republicans are less likely to see the FBI as biased. While approximately 59 percent of Republicans told us last year that the FBI favored the Democratic Party, this perception of bias was 17 percentage points lower among those Republicans who condemned the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol.

In other words, it’s the Trump wing of the Republican Party that distrusts the FBI.

Will Republican antipathy for the FBI continue?

As Trump has been campaigning for candidates he favors, he often complains that he’s a victim of a politically motivated witch hunt. Republicans generally will be looking for issues that resonate with portions of their base as they attempt to take back control of Congress. The recent ruling requiring a special master to review the documents taken from Mar-a-Lago will probably draw out the Justice Department/FBI investigation, making it likely that Trump and his supporters will continue to denigrate the bureau for the foreseeable future.

Democrats are unlikely to let the irony of an FBI-skeptical GOP slide. The White House Twitter account is already calling out specific Republican House members for demands to defund the FBI. This may further polarize attitudes toward the FBI, which would reduce confidence in the main federal institution of domestic law enforcement. At worst, that can lead to active violence, as happened in August, when an angry Trump supporter attacked an FBI office.

We expect to continue tracking this trend, alongside attitudes toward other institutions and general trends in support for democracy. All data from the 2018 wave is available on the AIC website, and the 2021 data should be similarly so this fall. In the meantime, find replication data for our analyses here.

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Jan Zilinsky (@janzilinsky) is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Technical University of Munich and a research affiliate at the NYU Center for Social Media and Politics (CSMaP).

Sean Kates is the associate director of programs in data analytics at the University of Pennsylvania and a core instructor at the Fels Institute of Government.

Jonathan Ladd is an associate professor in the McCourt School of Public Policy and the department of government at Georgetown University.

Funding for the American Institutional Confidence Poll was provided by John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at New York University, and by the Baker Trust, the Massive Data Institute and the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University.


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