But those results — how they’re arrayed, how they evolved — offer a neat distillation of the Trump era.
Partisanship is central to this era, of course. That 64 percent of Republicans think one thing and 86 percent of Democrats think the opposite is barely worth mentioning in a moment when the two parties agree on almost no political issue — and on almost no issue that can be reframed into being political.
The subject of the dispute in this case, though, is key. You’ll remember that the question of whether the Obama administration may have been spying on Trump was catapulted to international attention by Trump himself, in a series of tweets on a Saturday morning in early March. He claimed that he had “just found out” that Obama “had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower” toward the conclusion of the campaign.
Why Trump was tweeting is important. This was at the tail end of the week he addressed a joint session of Congress, earning broadly positive reviews — only to see that good press swamped by reports about Attorney General Jeff Sessions having met with the ambassador from Russia without reporting it. Only a few minutes before the “wires tapped” tweet, Trump defended one of the meetings in which Sessions participated. In other words: Trump was tweeting about the wiretapping at least in some part because he was angry about the attention on Sessions (as our reporting at the time suggested).
What evidence had Trump seen? Since then, this question has been posed to Trump several times and investigated at length. It seems that the early explanation is the correct one: Trump had seen a report at Breitbart walking through claims made by radio host Mark Levin that, themselves, were heavily based on a report in the conservative publication Heat Street that claimed the Obama administration had sought a warrant to surveil campaign officials. It also includes a New York Times report that data from wiretapping had been used to investigate Trump aides — though the story itself didn’t say that Trump or his associates were targeted directly. (That article spurred an ancillary conspiracy theory about the Times changing a headline, which it didn’t.)
Trump supporters quickly rallied around his claims and embraced reporting that reinforced it. There are two overlapping facets of the Trump era at play here. The first is that Trump’s claims are granted the benefit of the doubt by his supporters despite how often claims he’s made are shown to be incomplete or incorrect. The second is that skepticism about the mainstream media, perceived as leaning against Trump and conservatives, offers space to contrary media voices, which, in this case, often lined up with Trump’s view of the situation. Many supporters of Trump scrambled to cobble together explanations for how his claims might be true.
There was no evidence at that point that phone lines in Trump Tower had been wiretapped or that Trump had been the focus of spying by the Obama administration. But that Trump said it happened was reason enough to build the case that it did — and to recast the question as being broadly about whether Obama (or anyone close to him) had surveilled (in any way) Trump (or anyone on his team). (Trump himself repeatedly pointed to the quotation marks in his first tweet as evidence that he meant wiretapping only as a broad concept, though later tweets didn’t use the quotes.) This looser interpretation is an easier case to make.
When Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) subsequently held an impromptu news conference asserting that some Trump associates had been improperly targeted by the administration, that prompted any remaining doubt to evaporate for many Trump supporters. Though Nunes eventually softened his language — and although his source was eventually revealed to be someone within the White House complex — his claim was rolled into the existing wispy evidence (including Levin’s) to present the case as closed. Mainstream media suggested that this was hardly the case, but that wasn’t much of a disincentive. Nor was Nunes repeatedly noting that there was no evidence that Trump Tower was wiretapped.
Earlier this month, Rush Limbaugh declared that the issue was settled: Obama had spied on Trump’s campaign. Why? Reporting that the FBI had obtained a warrant to monitor the communications of ancillary Trump aide Carter Page. This was certainly an element within the Obama administration seeking to investigate a member of the Trump campaign team, albeit someone the campaign later disavowed.
Another critical aspect here is skepticism about Obama himself — circling back to the partisanship question. Our story about this poll result quotes a poll respondent and Trump supporter named Gary Phillips. “I wouldn’t put it past the Obama bunch,” Phillips told The Post. Operating from a position of skepticism about Obama (and, perhaps, a position of agreement with Trump) means you’re likely to view the nebulous support for Trump’s specific tweet as being more definitive than it perhaps is.
A great deal of the way these results look is a function of how you interpret the question. Does that Page warrant prove, as it seems to for Limbaugh, that the Obama administration intentionally spied on Trump and members of his campaign?
There’s also use of “do you think” to introduce the question, vs. “did.” This is about opinion, not evidence. And it is the opinion of Trump supporters and Republicans that, yes, the Obama team intentionally spied on Trump himself and his team.
That they hold this opinion is the point. Trump created and shepherded this controversy by tweeting the theory in the first place, then leveraged partisanship, skepticism about the media and his well-honed ability to recast his questionable comments as reasonable ones to his advantage.
In those six circles, the Trump phenomenon at work.