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.”
The real scandal involves the Russian hacking operation against the Democratic National Committee. This was a genuine crime, a meaningful theft, which led to a series of leaks that were touted by the Republican nominee for president often enough that we can assume that Donald Trump, at least, thought they contributed something to his victory. The fact that members of his family and inner circle were willing and eager to meet with Russians promising hacked emails, the pattern of lies and obfuscation from the president and his team thereafter, and the general miasma of Russian corruption hanging around Trump campaign staff — all of this more than justifies Robert Mueller’s investigation, and depending on what his team ultimately reports it might even justify impeachment.
.. the broader ambition of widening our internal fissures, inflaming our debates, making our imperium more ungovernable at home and thus weaker on the global stage... Such conduct is certainly worthy of indictment, legal and rhetorical. What it is not worth is paranoia and hysteria, analogies to Pearl Harbor and the Sept. 11 attacks, and an “America under attack”/“hacking our democracy” panic that give the Russian trolls far too much credit for cleverness and influence and practical success... Because on the evidence we have, nothing they did particularly mattered. The D.N.C. hack was genuinely important because it involved a real theft and introduced a variable into the campaign that would not otherwise have been present. But the rest of the Russian effort did not introduce anything to the American system.. The protests and counterprotests they ginned up after the election were marginal imitations of the all-American crowds that showed up for Trump rallies and later for the Women’s Marches... on the evidence we have most fake news is political pornography for hyperpartisans — toxic in its own way, deserving of concern, but something driven more by panting, already polarized demand.. the people obsessing about how Russian influence is supposedly driving polarization and mistrust risk becoming like J. Edgar Hoover-era G-men convinced that Communist subversives were the root cause of civil rights era protest and unrest... the proper question should still be: How was it that close to begin with?.. Should this re-emergent nationalism be conciliated and co-opted, its economic grievances answered and some compromises made to address its cultural and moral claims?
Or is it sufficiently noxious and racist and destructive that it can be only crushed, through gradual demographic weight or ruthless polarized mobilization?
.. it does us no good to pretend the real blow came from outside our borders, when it was clearly a uniquely hot moment in our own cold civil war.
President said earlier this month that his predecessor had tapped Trump Tower
“I don’t think there was an actual tap of Trump Tower,” Rep. Devin Nunes (R., Calif.) told reporters on Capitol Hill Wednesday. “You have to decide, Are you going to take the tweets literally, and if you are, then clearly the president is wrong.”
Over the weekend, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway suggested that the government had other ways to surveil Americans and mentioned the use of microwaves and phones as spying devices. By Monday, the White House had walked back Mr. Trump’s allegation. White House spokesman Sean Spicer said that Mr. Trump didn’t believe that Mr. Obama had personally tapped his phone, but instead was talking broadly about surveillance.
.. “They’ve been all over the map,” said Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the panel. “The reality is, I don’t think they have the foggiest idea of what was behind the president’s claim except maybe something he watched on TV. And I think the rest is designed to downplay, minimize or obfuscate the fact that the president said something that was patently untrue.”