Trump’s acting Intel Director: I speak freely or I quit.
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.”
Here’s some of what Cohen said Tuesday:
In a private transaction in 2016, I used my own personal funds to facilitate a payment of $130,000 to Ms. Stephanie Clifford [Daniels’s real name]. Neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign was a party to the transaction with Ms. Clifford, and neither reimbursed me for the payment, either directly or indirectly. The payment to Ms. Clifford was lawful and was not a campaign contribution or a campaign expenditure by anyone.
You might notice there is one main Trump-related entity that Cohen doesn’t deny was “party to the transaction” or reimbursed Cohen, and that’s Trump.
It’s also noteworthy that Cohen uses the word “facilitate” — a word that seems to leave open to the possibility that the chain doesn’t end at the use of “my own personal funds.”
It’s difficult to dismiss either as a coincidence, given Cohen is a lawyer and has carefully parsed his comments throughout this situation. He has regularly offered what seemed to be denials but didn’t totally deny the details of what the Journal had reported.
.. Cohen offered a denial that didn’t directly address whether he had made the payment; instead, he focused on whether the affair happened. “This is now the second time that you are raising outlandish allegations against my client,” he told the Journal. “You have attempted to perpetuate this false narrative for over a year; a narrative that has been consistently denied by all parties since at least 2011.”
.. that sounds a lot like a denial, but he’s denying something very specific — and turns out it wasn’t the payment.
.. he suggests that he was merely combating the rumors of an affair: “Just because something isn’t true doesn’t mean that it can’t cause you harm or damage. I will always protect Mr. Trump.”
.. Cohen again offered a non-denial denial. “You’re [sic] obsessive drive to prove a false narrative, one that has been rebuked by all parties, must come to an end,” Cohen wrote.
But the lion’s share of that “narrative” has now been confirmed by Cohen himself.
.. suggesting that he wasn’t serving as a conduit
.. The big question is whether Cohen served as a conduit for anyone else — especially Trump.
.. Cohen emphasizes that he used his own personal funds to “facilitate” the payment, but he doesn’t directly say that he wasn’t reimbursed by anyone. Indeed, the word “facilitate” means to make something easy or less difficult, which could be read to describe serving as a middle man for such payments.
.. then says he doesn’t “plan to provide any further comment” — is tough to dismiss as a coincidence.
.. Almost as tough as it is to believe that Cohen would make such a payment without Trump having any knowledge of the situation.
In the Kimmel interview, Daniels strongly suggested that she did, in fact, sign some kind of nondisclosure agreement.
KIMMEL: Do you have a nondisclosure agreement?
DANIELS: Do I?
KIMMEL: You can’t say whether you have a nondisclosure agreement, but if you didn’t have a nondisclosure agreement, you most certainly could say, “I don’t have a nondisclosure agreement.” Yes?
DANIELS: You’re so smart, Jimmy.
Daniels, it seems, is trying to remain in technical compliance with the nondisclosure agreement while leading the media and the public to conclude that her denials are not genuine and that the affair was real.
.. Whether Daniels can engage in such innuendo without violating the nondisclosure agreement “turns on the actual terms and language of the agreement, which I have not seen,” said Kathleen Cahill, a Baltimore sexual harassment lawyer.
Trump is, indeed, in a bind: He can’t sue Daniels for breach of contract without admitting that a contract exists.
.. Daniels could open herself up to a different kind of lawsuit, a defamation suit, if she were to explicitly claim that she and Trump had an affair.
“It would be qualitatively different if she came forward and said, ‘Yes, I had an affair,’ ” Katz said. “Then I think he would sue her.”