Donald Trump is setting records again.
More than one in three people – 37% – in a new Gallup poll said they believe that the President’s administration has “excellent” or “good” ethical standards, the lowest total recorded for any President dating back almost four decades.
Trump also has the highest percentage of people of any President dating back to Ronald Reagan (which is when Gallup started asking the question) saying the ethical standards of his administration are “poor”; four in 10 say that of Trump’s administration, while the next highest is the 32% who rated the ethical standards of Barack Obama’s administration as “poor.”
There are, obviously, some caveats here.
The most important is that responses to questions about the ethics of a particular president or administration tend to track quite closely to presidential approval. The more popular the president, the more likely people are to say that he runs an administration that is rightly focused on ethics. Given Trump’s low approval numbers for much of the first 17 months of his presidency, it’s not terribly surprising that his ethics ratings have floundered as well.
But approval ratings, at least in Gallup’s numbers, have always lagged ethics ratings – until Trump. His job approval in Gallup (44%) is markedly higher than the percentage of people who believe his administration operates on high ethical standards. No other president has had that sort of negative margin.
The other caveat to keep in mind is that Gallup didn’t always ask this poll question when presidents were mired in the lowest moments, ethically speaking, of their presidencies.
The Reagan numbers – between 58% and 60% said his administration’s ethics were “excellent” or “good” – came before the entire Iran-Contra controversy. Bill Clinton’s ethics numbers come from two polls conducted in early 1994, long before “Monica Lewinsky” was a household name.
Even with that context, Trump’s numbers on ethics stand out. But they shouldn’t surprise.
Remember that just one in three voters in the 2016 election said that they believed Trump was “honest and trustworthy,” according to 2016 exit polls. (Trump got the votes of one in five people who said he wasn’t honest and trustworthy!)
And in the year and a half since Trump was sworn in as President, his administration – particularly members of his Cabinet – have faced controversy after controversy. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price was forced out after his penchant for private plane travel was revealed. Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin left after news broke that he had used taxpayer money to help fund his wife’s trip to Europe. Ronny Jackson, the man Trump chose to replace Shulkin, never even made it to a confirmation vote amid controversies over his prescription writing. And then there is EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who somehow remains in office amid repeated ethical questions.
Trump and his inner circle haven’t been immune to major ethical issues either. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 campaign and possible collusion with members of the Trump campaign has loomed over Trump’s time in office – a cloud from which he simply cannot escape.
While Trump decries the probe as a “witch hunt,” it has already produced five guilty pleas, including from his former national security adviser and his former deputy campaign chairman.
There’s little debate in these Gallup numbers that large majorities of the public do not regard the Trump administration as particularly ethical. The question going forward is whether they will hold that belief against Trump. In 2016, they didn’t.