A new poll released by USA Today and Suffolk University on Monday renewed the political commentariat’s fears about President Donald Trump’s ability to shape the narrative about the Mueller probe through sheer force of will.
The headline for the poll sounded dire: ‘Half of Americans say Trump is victim of a ‘witch hunt’ as trust in Mueller erodes,” USA Today said. Many observers on Twitter voiced fears that Trump’s endless, repetitive attacks on the Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation had finally sunk in.
Trump himself celebrated the result:
Wow! A Suffolk/USA Today Poll, just out, states, “50% of Americans AGREE that Robert Mueller’s investigation is a Witch Hunt.” @MSNBC Very few think it is legit! We will soon find out?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 18, 2019
But others noted that the poll seems dubious — in particular, the question that led to headline-making result seems quite poorly worded.
The question was written as follows:
President Trump has called the Special Counsel’s investigation a “witch hunt” and said he’s been subject to more investigations than previous presidents because of politics. Do you agree?
But it’s far from clear they knew really what they were responding to with such a poorly phrased query.
“This is a badly written poll question, because it is asking two different things at the same time,” said Geoff Garin, president of Hart Research Associates. “Are respondents agreeing that the investigation is a witch hunt or that Trump is subjected to more investigations than other presidents?”
And The Atlantic’s Natasha Bertrand noted another possible confusion in the question: “Among other issues, it could be read as asking whether the respondent agrees with the fact that the president has said that.”
With such an unclear poll question, there are few inferences one can reasonably draw from it.
And in contrast to USA Today’s headline and Trump’s celebration, the poll suggests little reason for Trump to think his rhetoric has been all that successful. About 54 percent of respondents said they had “a lot of” or “some” trust in Mueller and his investigation to be accurate and fair (which, incidentally, isn’t what you’d expect if 50 percent of people though it was a “witch hunt.”). Only about 43 percent of people said they had “a lot of” or “some” trust in Trump’s denial that his campaign colluded with Russian efforts to meddle in the 2016 election.
There’s still the possibility that Mueller will conclude that Trump did nothing wrong, and so the majority of the public’s trust in his probe would turn out to be a good thing for the president. But Trump himself doesn’t seem to be acting as though that’s likely to happen — he’s instead working to discredit Mueller before the investigation wraps up, even as the special counsel diligently remains silent.