CNN Poll: Broad majority of Americans approve of appointment of special counsel to investigate Biden documents

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More than 8 in 10 Americans approve of the appointment of a special counsel to investigate classified documents found at President Joe Biden’s Delaware residence and an office he used after serving as vice president, according to a new CNN Poll conducted by SSRS.

The poll finds broad approval across party lines for the appointment, with 88% of Republicans, 84% of independents and 80% of Democrats saying they approve of it.

About two-thirds of Americans consider the discovery of classified documents in a Washington, DC, office used by Biden as well as at his residence in Wilmington to be a serious problem (67% consider it very or somewhat serious), and nearly 6 in 10 (57%) say they disapprove of the way the Biden White House has handled the situation.

There are broad partisan gaps on both of those questions. Democrats (74%) largely approve of how Biden’s administration has handled the discovery of classified documents, while most Republicans (85%) and independents (62%) disapprove. And Republicans are more likely to call the unearthing of the documents a serious problem – 89% say so, including 56% who consider it a “very serious” problem, compared with just 46% of Democrats who say it is serious, including just 10% who call it very serious.

Only about 1 in 6 Americans (18%) consider Biden to be blameless in the situation involving these classified documents, with 81% saying he has at least done something unethical. But fewer say he acted illegally (37%) than say that he acted unethically but not illegally (44%). That isn’t the case in perceptions of former President Donald Trump’s actions around classified material found at his Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago. The poll finds a majority of Americans believe Trump did something illegal in that situation.

Most Democrats say Biden’s actions were unethical but not illegal (55%), while most Republicans say he’s acted illegally (64%). Independents tilt toward saying it was unethical rather than illegal (47% unethical, 39% illegal, 14% nothing wrong).

But the poll also suggests that news about the discovery of the documents has had little impact thus far on baseline views of the president. Biden’s approval rating in the new survey stands at 45% approve to 55% disapprove, little changed from CNN’s December poll, in which 46% approved of his handling of the presidency.

And overall views of Biden personally also haven’t shifted much. The new poll pegs his favorability rating at 40% favorable to 54% unfavorable, about the same as the 42% favorable to 52% unfavorable read in December.

The survey was conducted largely before it was revealed Saturday evening that the FBI searched Biden’s Wilmington home on Friday and found additional classified materials. It was fully completed before CNN first reported Tuesday that lawyers for former Vice President Mike Pence had discovered classified documents at his home in Indiana.

About half of Americans overall (51%) are following news about the classified documents found at Biden’s office and residence at least somewhat closely, with Republicans far more likely to say they are tuned in to news about this story than are Democrats or independents. Among Democrats (46%) and independents (45%), less than half say they are following closely. Among Republicans, though, 62% are following closely, including 20% who say they are following very closely.

Among both Republicans and independents who say they are following at least somewhat closely, impressions that Biden has done something illegal are more widespread than among those paying less attention, while there is little difference among Democrats in views on Biden’s behavior relative to how closely they are following the story. About three-quarters of Republicans following at least somewhat closely say Biden has done something illegal (75%) compared with about half of those who say they are not as closely following the story (47%). Likewise, more independents who are closely attuned to the news about the Biden documents say they feel the president has done something illegal (50%) than do those independents who are less closely following it (31%). Among Democrats, 10% of those following at least somewhat closely say Biden has acted illegally, not significantly different from the 6% of Democrats following less closely who feel the same way.

More Americans overall say that Trump acted illegally in the situation involving classified documents found at Mar-a-Lago than say the same of Biden. All told, 52% say Trump has done something illegal, 32% that he acted unethically but not illegally and 15% that he did nothing wrong. The FBI obtained a search warrant to search his Florida resort in August because federal investigators believed Trump had not turned over all classified material despite a subpoena and were concerned records at Mar-a-Lago were being moved around.

The 84% overall who believe Trump engaged in at least unethical behavior suggests a broader consensus about his actions than existed in the immediate aftermath of the FBI search of his property last year, when an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found that only about 6 in 10 Americans believed Trump had acted unethically or illegally. That poll did not specify that any of the documents found were classified.

A broad 82% overall in CNN’s latest poll approve of the decision to appoint a special counsel to investigate the documents found at Trump’s resort. There is a wider partisan divide over approval of the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the former president than there is over the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Biden – 95% of Democrats approve of the special counsel investigating Trump, compared with 68% of Republicans, with independents squarely in between partisans at 82% approval.

The CNN Poll was conducted by SSRS from January 19 through 22 among a random national sample of 1,004 adults drawn from a probability-based panel. Surveys were either conducted online or by telephone with a live interviewer. Results among the full sample have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.0 points; it is larger for subgroups.