The anti-bullying advocate tells John Oliver that no one asked the former president if he’d consider a new identity
Monica Lewinsky wonders why people don’t ask her the same questions as Bill Clinton.
John Oliver, host of HBO’s T, +0.36% “Last Week Tonight,” asked Lewinsky on Sunday evening about the difficulty getting a job after completing her Master of Science degree at the London School of Economics in 2006, and asked her if she ever considered changing her name.
.. She also said it was a matter of principle, given that no one asked Clinton that question. “I think that’s an important statement,” she said. “I’m not proud of all the choices I’ve made in my life, but I’m proud of the person I am. I’m not ashamed of who I am.”
Lewinsky said it was sexist that the scandal was named after her rather than Clinton. “As hard as it has been to have that last name sometimes, and the pain that I have felt that what it’s meant for the other people in my family who have that last name, I am glad I didn’t change it,” she added.
.. But Lewinsky also said there may have been an upside to Facebook FB, -3.55% and Twitter existing in 1998 when her relationship with Clinton became public. “I might have heard some support from some people,” she said. “It would have been more balanced.”
.. Still, she told Oliver that the media representation of her became more and more detached from her real persona. She described it as a form of identity theft. “It was a shit storm,” she said. “It was an avalanche of pain and humiliation.”
“Not to say I wasn’t flawed, or make terrible mistakes or do stupid things, or say stupid things, because of course I did,” she added. Lewinsky said the scandal is referenced somewhere on a daily basis. “Because the scandal has my name,” she added, “I’m forever attached to it.”
Twice in just a few hours Saturday, President Trump and his representatives offered textbook examples of the fog-making rhetorical response known as the non-denial denial.
Asked during a Fox News interview whether he was a Russian agent (as the FBI suspected, according to a blockbuster New York Timesstory), Trump harrumphed, “I think it’s the most insulting thing I’ve ever been asked. I think it’s the most insulting article I’ve ever had written, and if you read the article you’ll see that they found absolutely nothing.” (Trump gave a more direct denial on Monday.)
.. Like all non-denial denials, both responses were forceful, even emotional in tone. But neither really answered the question.
That’s exactly how a non-denial denial (or NDD, if you will) is supposed to work. It suggests the speaker is responding forthrightly, without really confirming or rejecting the claim.
NDDs aren’t technically lies, but they are evasive and obfuscating. By seeming to dispute a statement without actually doing so, an NDD can raise doubts about the veracity of a damning statement. They have the added benefit of letting the non-denial denier off the hook if and when more facts emerge that confirm the original report. The denier, after all, never actually said the initial report was wrong, so he or she can’t be called on a blatant lie later.
.. In addition to their many inaccurate, misleading and baseless statements, Trump and his representatives have been frequent practitioners of the NDD:
●Following news reports that Trump intended to replace national security adviser H.R. McMaster with John Bolton in March, Sanders tweeted, “Just spoke to Potus and Gen. H.R. McMaster. Contrary to reports, they have a good working relationship. There are no changes at the NSC.” There weren’t then; Bolton replaced McMasterfour days later.
●McMaster himself provided non-denial cover for the White House after The Post reported last year that Trump had leaked details of a classified operation against the Islamic State during an Oval Office meeting with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak and foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. “The story that came out tonight, as reported, is false,” he said, adding, “At no time were intelligence sources or methods discussed. And the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known.” But the story never said Trump disclosed nonpublic military operations or discussed “intelligence sources or methods.”
McMaster’s statement never cited anything specific in the story that was false.
The “non-denial denial” phrase itself appears to have entered the lexicon during the Watergate era of the mid-1970s.
Several sources credit the late Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee with coining it in reaction to statements made by President Nixon and his spokesman about The Post’s reporting.
“As best as I can recall, Bradlee was the first to use the ‘non-denial denial’ language,” said Bob Woodward, who along with Carl Bernstein reported those stories.
At one point, Woodward said, the White House said The Post’s sources were a “fountain of misinformation,” but did not specifically challenge the reported facts. “I recall when I first heard [the phrase], I thought, ‘Ah, Bradlee was giving language to precisely what was happening.’ ”
Woodward said the most artful NDDs are issued with “such force, language and outrage that it sounds like a real denial.” What’s more, as with Trump, the Nixon White House mixed non-denials with outright denials, creating the impression that his administration was actually denying everything.
.. The Trump White House pushed back on Woodward’s most recent book, “Fear,” with its own nonspecific NDD regarding the book’s many anecdotes about infighting and chaos among Trump’s top officials. In a statement upon the book’s release in September, Sanders said, “This book is nothing more than fabricated stories, many by former disgruntled employees, told to make the President look bad.” (Trump and former White House chief of staff John F. Kelly did, however, issue more specific denials).
As a rhetorical device, NDDs are an updated version of the “red herring” fallacy, the notion that an irrelevant topic is introduced in an argument to divert attention from the original issue, said Edward Schiappa, a professor of comparative media studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In other words, he said, “it’s just another in a long line of strategies of evasion.”
Trump isn’t unique in this, said Dana L. Cloud, a communication and rhetorical studies professor at Syracuse University. “One need only think of Bill Clinton’s reductionist use of a definitional argument when claiming that he did not have sex with Monica Lewinsky,” she said.
“It is not a set of tactics unique to Trump or any particular political party.”
.. But Trump’s NDD’s tend to fit a pattern, said Jennifer Mercieca, a professor at Texas A&M who specializes in American political discourse. His strategy typically involves a combination of
- denying knowledge of an accusation;
- denying associating with the people allegedly involved;
- asking what the victim did to deserve his or her fate; and
- accusing his accusers, “which is an appeal to hypocrisy.”
As such, Trump’s non-denial denials are different in kind and manner than earlier presidents, according to Rosa A. Eberly, a rhetoric professor at Penn State, because they assert “de facto negative evaluations” of most democratic institutions. “I don’t see [rhetoric of this kind] as an effective strategy for the long game of democracy,” she said.
Trump, Woodward said, “has taken the old Nixon strategy of making the issue the conduct of the press, not the conduct of the president, to new strategic heights. And some of it is working.”
They eventually allowed her to make a call, but she still hadn’t decided whether she would help the FBI. Then the agents threatened to go after her family.
“He said, ‘Well, you should know, we’re also thinking about prosecuting your mum for the things you said she did on the tape,'” she said, crying.
“In order to cooperate and avoid charges, I would have to make monitored phone calls which they would listen in to and record and I might have to wear a wire and go see people in person.
“I was mortified and afraid of what this would do to my family. I was still in love with Bill at the time so I felt really responsible.”
Two decades on from the outbreak of the scandal, the now public figure and writer said she still doesn’t “feel comfortable talking about it”, but the one thing that she’s adamant about is that despite the moral and ethical implications, it was a consensual relationship.
“It’s not as if it didn’t register with me that he was the president. Obviously it did,” she said.
“‘But I think in one way the moment we were actually in the back office for the first time the truth is I think it meant more to me the someone who other people desired, desired me.
“However wrong it was, however misguided, for who I was at that time, at 22 years old, it was how I felt.”
Rudy Giuliani tells Axios that his client, President Trump, is currently willing to speak to Special Counsel Robert Mueller on the condition that he not be asked about two subjects: why Trump fired FBI director James Comey, and what Trump said to Comey about the investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
You might wonder if the specificity of this demand sounds just a wee bit suspicious, as if Trump’s lawyers are pointing frantically at a locked door at a crime scene and shouting “Don’t go in there!” You would be right.
.. The Russia scandal has followed an eerily similar fact pattern to Watergate. Both cases feature as the central underlying crime the burglary of private files from the Democratic National Committee in order to give Republicans an advantage in a presidential campaign. Both cases also feature the president leaning on the FBI to quash an investigation that might connect the burglary to the president and his inner circle.
.. We are accustomed — not only by Watergate but by every criminal or detective drama — to expect evidence to mount to a crescendo over time. Nobody knows quite how to respond to the spectacle of a president committing high crimes and misdemeanors in his first few weeks in office, and then simply confessing to them casually in a subsequent television interview.
.. A perjury trap is a real thing. The term describes when prosecutors lure a witness into giving false testimony, usually for reasons other than covering up a crime, knowing they can prove the claim was false, and then nail them for perjury.
.. The impeachment of President Clinton was a classic perjury trap. Special Prosecutor Ken Starr asked the president about an affair with Monica Lewinsky, knowing Clinton — like most people who have affairs, especially politicians — would lie about it.
.. Asking Trump about his attempt to manipulate his FBI director is not a perjury trap. The question is not extraneous to a crime, it is a crime. He was very consciously attempting to stop an investigation into his administration. The mere fact that his lawyers are discussing it well in advance indicates that the subject matter is not a perjury trap, because the “trap” aspect involves the witness not knowing beforehand that the question is designed to produce a lie.
Trump’s lawyers have presumably concluded that they have no defense of his obstruction of justice. Faced with a choice between admitting to obstruction of justice, or denying it and risking perjury, Trump’s choice is to avoid the question altogether.