The Art of the “Deceptive Answer”

How Trump used “Weasel Words” to Trick Us into Thinking He Agreed to Testify Under Oath.

There is so much media attention to President Trump that it amazes me that I haven’t heard anyone else debunk the conventional wisdom that President Trump agreed to testify under oath“100%.”  This would be true if he had stopped speaking at that point, but in the 9 quick sentences that followed, Trump used a tricky distraction technique to take back his word.

What Trump actually agreed to was the following:

  • Trump may, or may not have asked James Comey for his loyalty, but if he did, Trump didn’t ask Comey to put his hand on the Bible when Comey’s allegiance was requested.

 

Trump’s tricky answer is either a strange accident, or an example of a “master manipulator”1 practicing his craft.  The creator of the Dilbert comic strip, Scott Adams, has been arguing for a long time that Trump’s “persuasion skills” are the best he’s seen.

In the rest of this post, I’ll compare Trump’s skill at the “trick answer” to Bill and Hillary Clinton’s attempts to trick the public, showing you how Trump takes deception to a whole new level.

What is a “Non-Denial Denial”?

The non-denial denial is a statement that is designed to appear to the uninitiated like a legitimate denial of an allegation.  It is used to deceive the public, often by answering a different question than what was asked or implied.

Let’s compare how Bill, Hillary, and Trump execute assertions and denials using various tricks:

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1) Bill Clinton: Use a Word with a Private Definition

Sometimes a non-denial denial hinges upon the definition of the word, which the politician has carefully selected to mislead the public.

Watch Bill Clinton slyly slip in the term “sexual relations” into this press event so as to give hope to supporters looking for an excuse to still believe in him.  (The term “sexual relations” was chosen because it was defined to not include oral sex).

This word trick gave those who wanted to believe in Clinton a reason to withhold judgement for a while.  If I were to score this trick on execution, I would give it a 9 out of 10, but note, Bill still got impeached.

2) Hillary Clinton: “Wipe Like with a Cloth”

Bill Clinton had the “gift”.  He was a “natural” as they say.   Hillary is said to be great in a one-on-one or small-group setting, but she couldn’t spin the media like her husband.  Watch as Hillary tries to redefine the term “wipe” in reference to her private email server:

In fairness to Hillary, she was responding to a live question, rather than acting out a prepared script. I’ll give Hillary a 2 out of 10, but acknowledge that it was a difficult defense.

 

3) Donald Trump: “100%.  I Didn’t Say Under Oath.”

Donald Trump was recently facing questions about his earlier vague denial of James Comey’s testimony.

After Trump appeared2 to deny the earlier Comey claim, Trump was asked a followup question about whether he would be willing to testify under oath that he had not asked Comey for a pledge of loyalty.  Notice how Trump twists the question from whether he would be willing to testify under oath into a misdirection about whether he asked Comey to pledge his loyalty under oath.

Here’s an excerpt from the full transcript:

(Note: The clip begins by Trump trash-talking ABC New’s Jonathan Karl, the journalist asking the question, and interrupting him, causing Karl to trip-up in posing the question.  The question should be: “did you ask Comey for a pledge of loyalty?)

< View entire transcript

KARL: And did he ask for a pledge of loyalty from you? That’s another thing he said.

TRUMP: No he did not.3

KARL: So, he said those things under oath. Would you be willing to speak under oath to give your version of events?

TRUMP: 100%. 4 I didn’t say under oath — I hardly know the man, I’m not going to say I want you to pledge allegiance. Who would do that? Who would ask a man to pledge allegiance, under oath? I mean, think of it. I hardly know the man. It doesn’t make sense. No, I didn’t say that, and I didn’t say the other.

KARL: So, if Robert Mueller wanted to speak with you about that you’d be willing to talk to him?

TRUMP: I would be glad to tell him exactly what I just told you, Jon.5

 

Trump’s Misdirection was a Success, Judging from the Media Coverage

We don’t know what the outcome of this long-term legal and public relations “war” will be, but Trump seems to have succeeded in this minor battle, which involved a very difficult feat — a real-time non-denial denial, which Trump turned into a persuasive “positive” — 100%.  Many people now actually have the impression that Trump wants to testify. Trump’s answer seems a little bizarre, but the newspaper stories portray Trump’s answers as a full-throated denial, which is the goal.

Deception for Sport

Dilbert creator, Scott Adams, thinks Trump will never actually testify under oath.  Perhaps Trump will say that he wants to testify but his lawyers advise against it, or, like in the case of his taxes, he will give cascading series of other excuses.  With this performance, Trump also leaves open the option to claim that he misheard the question, while further giving him a feeling of dominance — that he can manipulate the media with impunity and win.  It’s almost as if Donald does “deception” for sport.

“Cheating, Fair and Square”

I’m giving Trump a 9.5 out of 10 for degree of difficulty, but in some ways it is riskier to use deceptive tricks rather than an outright lie, because if the trick is uncovered, its existence is tantamount to an admission that you are lying.  I don’t have any special insight into Trump’s psyche, but if I had to guess why he acts in this way, I think it’s because deception has become a game to him.  Donald games the public for the same reason he games his taxes, stiffs his business partners6 and dupes Trump University students7 — the thrill of feeling like you got away with cheating, fair and square.”

If Trump succeeds in this deception, a Republican-controlled House and Senate make his prospects better than Bill’s.  Trump just needs to make sure he doesn’t lose the House in the mid-term elections.

The Alternative Option: Take the 5th

There is another option which Trump described in 1998 when Chris Matthews asked him about what Bill Clinton should have done.  Trump said Bill should have taken the 5th and attacked the Special Prosecutor for being out to get him.  This is a strategy he later seems to have adopted in the Trump University case with Judge Curiel, which he later settled.

Update: Trump Surrogates go after Mueller.

 

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  1. Dilbert creator Scott Adams says that “persuasion” is not good or bad in itself.  Persuasion is a tool that can be used for either good or evil. When persuasion becomes “manipulation”, I no longer see that as neutral.

  2. I say appeared because I think it more likely that Trump was asserting that the reporter’s wording wasn’t an exact match.

  3. Technically Trump is correct because, by rattling him, Trump was able to trip Karl up into misstating the question.

  4. All the soundbites end here with “100%,” but watch the next 9 sentences that negate the affirmation.  If Trump really meant “YES”, he could have said “YES.  ABSOLUTELY” and left it at that.  I can see no other purpose for these next 9 sentences other than as weasel words.

  5. Trump is only committing himself to affirm to Mueller the nonsensical response that Trump did not ask Comey to swear loyalty to him under oath.  Furthermore, technically speaking, Trump did not commit to making the statement to Mueller while under oath.

  6. Even though Trump could have paid his suppliers, he had some of his corporations  declare “strategic bankruptcy.”  He is extremely wealthy now, but he takes pride in stiffing those who worked for him.

  7. Trump was deeply involved in the marketing of Trump University, but had no role in the actual teaching.   Some of the seminars were taught by timeshare salesmen just looking for a quick buck.