Kremlin Contradiction: Despite Trump’s ‘respect’, two-thirds of Americans view Putin negatively

Kremlin Contradiction: Despite Trump’s ‘respect’, two-thirds of Americans view Putin negatively


February 10, 2017 – “Very smart.” “A great leader.” At times, both during the election and since taking office, President Donald Trump has been effusive in his praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin. This was again the case during a pre-Super Bowl sit-down with Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly. Trump reiterated his “respect” for Putin and remained open to pursuing closer ties with a former cold war foe.

A new public opinion poll of more than 1,500 Americans – part of the Angus Reid Institute’s America Project – finds little appetite for warming relations to Russia, especially among Trump’s political opponents, but also among a significant portion of those who supported him in the 2016 election.

More than two-thirds of Americans say they have a negative view of Putin. Further, they are divided on whether Trump’s overtures toward Moscow are ultimately in America’s best interests. This division falls out along partisan lines, with Trump supporters overwhelmingly believing his efforts serve America, while his opponents overwhelmingly believe this is the wrong approach.

Key Findings:Russia Trump Angus Reid

  • Overall, two-thirds of Americans (67%) say they have a negative view of the Russian President, though a majority (57%) of those who supported Trump in the election hold a positive view
  • Americans are split – along partisan lines – as to whether their new president is acting in his own interests or the country’s in pursuing closer ties with Russia and Putin
  • Russia ranks last on a list of countries Americans would like their new president to approach on friendly terms, alongside China and Saudi Arabia. Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia top the list, followed by European allies France, Italy, and Germany.

Americans skeptical about Russia, Putin

One of the most controversial – but ultimately successful – aspects of Donald Trump’s election campaign was his steadfast support for opening friendly relations with Russia. Indeed, he and President Putin were said to have had a productive one-hour conversation in late January, as a first step in re-forming a relationship “in need of repair”. Americans, for their part, view the relationship with a great deal of uncertainty.

When asked, the largest segments of Americans would rather see the Kremlin engaged cautiously (31%) or treated as a threat to US interests (26%). While just under one-in-five Americans say the administration should approach Russia either as a valued partner (4%) or on friendly terms (13%).

Russia Trump Angus Reid

Views on Russia appear to owe in large part to opinion on its leader, Vladimir Putin. While Trump has praised Putin as a “great leader” and gone so far as to brush off questions about the killing of political opponents and journalists in Russia by saying “our country does plenty of killing too”, GOP stalwarts remain highly critical of Putin; indeed, the Republican-controlled Senate has opened an investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. election.

Asked which view of Putin they’re more likely to hold, two-thirds of Americans (67%) choose the negative. Among Trump supporters, however, a small majority (57%) say they have a positive view of Russia’s president:

Russia Trump Angus Reid

The message from this White House has been a strong and resonant “America First”. But when it comes to this file, roughly half of Americans (49%) say Trump’s Russia-friendly approach to foreign policy is motivated by his own private agenda, rather than the interests of the United States.

Again, Trump and Clinton supporters form vastly different camps on this question.

Russia Trump Angus Reid

To this point, little has been reported about what holdings Trump may have in Russia. While he has tweeted that he has “no deals, no loans, no nothing” with the Kremlin, claims to the contrary have surrounded both he and members of his administration in recent months.

Americans value traditional allies

America’s new president has proposed some major shake-ups to U.S. foreign policy. From the United Nations to NAFTA to NATO alliances, all international agreements appear to be on the bargaining table.

This poll however, finds the American public mostly keen on maintaining the international relationships it developed after World War II. Asked how they would like to see their new president approach 18 different countries – chosen for their geographic diversity, economic strength (most are G20 nations), and relevance to American policymakers – respondents opt for closest relations with allies in Europe and the English-speaking world, as seen in the following graph:

Canada, Britain, and Australia are in the top tier of potential allies. A full majority (57%) say the Trump administration should treat Canada as “a valued partner and ally” (see comprehensive tables). The President was quick to reach out to this triumvirate. He spoked to Justin Trudeau after the election, and called to offer his sympathies after the shooting at a Quebec mosque in late January. The administration also invited UK Prime Minister Theresa May as its first official diplomatic visit.

Trump is not afraid to play hard ball with American allies however. While three-quarters of Americans (76%) say Australia should be approached as a valued ally or friend, Trump reportedly hung up on Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull after a heated exchange regarding a refugee transfer deal negotiated by the previous administration.

A bipartisan bill affirming support for the US-Australia relationship was introduced in the Senate after the incident. The bill is likely to ruffle few feathers, as support for Australia as an ally or friend crosses party lines:

Russia Trump Angus Reid

Unfavourable relationships

Other countries that sit at the opposite end of the spectrum from those considered US allies include China and Saudi Arabia. With respect to both countries, the largest number of Americans say each should be approach with caution. And though fewer say each should be viewed as a threat than Russia, just under one-quarter would like to see each approached on friendly terms:

Russia Trump Angus Reid

The US relationship with China has become particularly central to foreign policy discussions in the wake of revelations that just nine months ago, President Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon stated that “there’s no doubt” that the US and China will go to war. The President himself, has been critical of China in the past, claiming that the Asian power maintains an artificially low currency for trade advantages, and going as far as calling them an “enemy” to the US. And though Trump angered China by speaking to President Tsai Ing-Wen of Taiwan, he waited until his third week in office to speak with Chinese President Xi Jingping.

Both sides of the political aisle appear to support the philosophy of the new administration. At least six-in-ten Trump and Clinton supporters respectively say China should be approached cautiously or as a potential threat.

Russia Trump Angus Reid

A nearly identical number of Americans say Saudi Arabia should be engaged in the same fashion as China. The Middle Eastern nation was left out of a controversial travel ban of majority-Muslim nations, with critics pointing to President Trump’s business interests potentially playing a role in that decision. The Saudi Government has voiced hope for a positive relationship with the administration, one that shares its opposition to Iran.

The American public, for their part, are less optimistic about this partnership, and would prefer the administration look upon it with caution.

Russia Trump Angus Reid

Mixed feelings toward Mexico and other nations

Between close friends and the bitter foes are nations toward which Americans express mixed feelings. In some cases – such as Egypt and Turkey – American ambivalence is driven by large numbers saying they are “not sure” how their government should approach them. In others – such as Mexico and Israel – the public is bitterly divided, again along partisan lines.

As was discussed in greater detail in a recent Angus Reid Institute report, Americans – especially Trump supporters – are wary of their southern neighbour, who they perceive as benefitting disproportionately from the trade relationship between the two countries.

Overall, roughly half of Americans (50%) say their new government should approach Mexico either “as a valued partner and ally” or “on friendly terms,” though there are notable partisan divisions on this question, as seen in the following graph:

Russia Trump Angus Reid

Globally, Mexico ranks alongside other G20 countries Brazil, India, South Africa, and South Korea in the minds of most Americans, though these nations are less polarizing for Trump and Clinton supporters than Mexico (see summary tables at the end of this report).

Russia Trump Angus Reid

Though they generally receive less attention in the United States than Mexico does, these other countries also have significant relationships with America and its new president.

For example, Americans’ less-than-resounding enthusiasm for friendship with South Korea raises questions about what response a flare-up of tensions with North Korea might elicit from the Trump administration, and how the public might respond.

Americans also have mixed feelings about India, a country that – like Mexico – is sometimes seen as “taking jobs” from Americans. India is also a country in which Trump has significant business interests, and it has so far not found itself in the new president’s protectionist cross-hairs in the way Mexico has.

The Angus Reid Institute (ARI) was founded in October 2014 by pollster and sociologist, Dr. Angus Reid. ARI is a national, not-for-profit, non-partisan public opinion research organization established to advance education by commissioning, conducting and disseminating to the public accessible and impartial statistical data, research and policy analysis on economics, political science, philanthropy, public administration, domestic and international affairs and other socio-economic issues of importance to Canada and its world.

Click here for the full report including tables and methodology

Click here for comprehensive data tables

Click here for the questionnaire used in this survey

Image – Jørgen Håland/Unsplash


Shachi Kurl, Executive Director: 604.908.1693

Ian Holliday, Research Associate: 604.442.3312

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