A new poll from Quinnipiac University has a splashy finding: A majority of people think that Attorney General Jeff Sessions lied under oath about his communications with Russian officials while working with the Trump campaign and should resign — 52 percent and 51 percent, according to the poll.
I was a little surprised by this. And upon further inspection, there are a few reasons for skepticism.
First of all, the question Quinnipiac asked doesn't include Sessions's actual response — nor does it include the actual question that Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) asked him. Sessions has argued that the context of the exchange is relevant here; he said that his meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak was in his official capacity and that his answer to Franken was in the context of the campaign. Sessions said his answer was “honest and correct as I understood it at the time.”
Here's the question Quinnipiac asked:
As you may know, during his Cabinet confirmation hearing, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions stated that he did not have any communications with Russian officials while working with the Trump campaign. It has since been revealed that he did meet with the Russian ambassador when he was a senator on the Armed Services Committee and a top adviser for the Trump campaign. Do you think he lied under oath about this issue, or do you think he made an unclear statement without lying?
You can think that Sessions's defense doesn't hold much water, but his explanation seems relevant to the question of whether he actually lied or not. What's more, Sessions didn't exactly say that he didn't have contact with the Russians “while working with the campaign” as Quinnipiac puts it. He said, “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians.”
Secondly, there is a real disconnect between the number of people who think Sessions lied and those who think he broke the law. A second poll question asked: Did Sessions do something illegal, did he do something unethical, or did he do nothing wrong? Although 52 percent said in response to the first question that Sessions lied, only 34 percent said in response to the second question that he did something illegal. This is curious because lying under oath is perjury, which is against the law.
There are legal distinctions here, of course, but it's doubtful that people decided Sessions's alleged lie was somehow not perjury. The difference between the two questions appears to be that, in the second case, respondents were given three options rather than two. When that's the case, studies show, people are more likely to choose the middle option.
In the first case, respondents were asked to choose between Sessions “lied under oath” and Sessions made an “unclear statement.” But when given a third option, they aren't so sure he broke the law.
This poll seems to be a great example of the way you ask the question determining the answers you get. We'll see if there are more polls.