Whataboutism, Obfuscation, Preemptive Framing, and Misdirection

obfuscation

CBS News poll: Majority of Americans and Democrats approve of Trump impeachment inquiry

Sarah Longwell, Trump’s PR Meltdown:

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Hey, this playbook worked for us the first time around with that whole Russia thing. A deft combination of whataboutism, obfuscation, preemptive framing, and misdirection is all we need to pull this off.”

Here’s the problem: Unlike the two-volume, 430-page Mueller report, the whistleblower report is 9 pages long. The central allegation is clear-cut and easy to understand. And it has already been proven true with the release of the call summary between Trump and Ukraine’s president.

You can try to spin the facts and fall back on process-arguments—but the battlespace is much smaller and the tempo is much faster than the Mueller wars. Most people will be able to read the report and anyone who doesn’t can clearly understand what happened: The president was acting like a mafia don by talking about the kind of “help” he could give Ukraine and then asking for “favors.” I mean, even Chris Christie understands that this is a problem: In an attempt to pre-spin all of this before the call summary was released, Christie insisted that it would only be bad for Trump if he said something blatantly extortive. Like, “do me a favor.”

Oops. Again.

Also, the Democrats and the media may be on to you. They’ve seen you run this play before and they’ve made adjustments. And the American people aren’t so sure anymore, either. In fact, a majority of them now back the impeachment inquiry. Including nearly 1-in-4 Republicans.

The Words on the Page

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David Frum, A Realist’s Guide to Impeachment: Trump should face the consequences of his misdeeds, but the road ahead is perilous.

Jeff Greenfield, 5 Ways Impeachment Could Play Out

Greg Sargent. Trump is cornered, and his ‘civil war’ threat stinks of panic

Jonathan Chait, Lindsey Graham Rests Entire Trump Defense on Word He Doesn’t Understand

The words on the paper that Trump released as an accurate account of his conversation with the president of Ukraine demonstrate a gross misuse of office.

The logical counter to the claim made in the previous sentence is to assert, “No, the words on the paper don’t show any such thing”—or, at the very least, to assert “The words on the paper are ambiguous, and there is a plausible implication that is different from your claim.”

It is Monday morning, Trump’s spokesbots have had a few days to think about their response, and their response is to run headlong away from the words on the paper Trump released. There is preliminary polling evidence that twenty percent of Republicans support the impeachment inquiry. Meanwhile, Trump is tweeting about inciting a civil war and arresting his accusers for treason.

In the piece cited above, Frum writes, “Nobody should have any illusions: Bringing anything like justice to President Trump will be neither easy nor safe. The exposure of Trump’s Ukraine extortion scheme forced impeachment on the country. It could not be ignored, and devices like censure are inadequate. But the days ahead are dark.” That seems a fair prognostication.

I think the four posts cited above are worth the reading, but please read for yourselves. I won’t discuss the substance of them. Instead, I want to set out some reflections on the first and second of Frum’s six suggestions, namely, “Keep the story simple” and “Be political, not legal.”

How to Defend Your Guy from Impeachment

There are four ways you can go.

One: he didn’t do it. In other words, you are drawing the wrong inference from the documents and testimony.

Two: he did it, but it was OK.

Three: he did it, and it wasn’t OK, but it wasn’t impeachable.

Four: stick your fingers in your ears and go “la la la la la.”

Defending Your Guy Against Impeachment—Some Examples

The Andrew Johnson impeachment illustrates argument two. He did violate the Tenure of Office Act, but the statute was unconstitutional. A rough analogy might be an article of impeachment based on Trump’s bogus “national emergency” declaration. It was illegal and wrong, but there’s enough legal confusion surrounding the issue to give Trump’s defenders a lot of wiggle room. So it would be a bad idea to include such a charge in the final articles of impeachment

The Clinton impeachment illustrates argument three. Yes, he lied under oath about sex, and yes, there might be some legitimate legal consequences that should flow from his perjury, but impeachment is not warranted. A rough analogy might be an article of impeachment based on Trump’s payment of hush money, just before the election, to a couple of well upholstered women of easy virtue. A lot of people would jump up and down charging the Democrats with hypocrisy for a sex-related allegation. So it would be a bad idea to. include such a charge.

As of this morning, it seems that some of Trump’s spokesbots are giving argument three a whirl, along the lines of, “there was nothing in the phone call that was impeachable.” But they’re coupling this argument with a manful refusal to face what was actually said in the call, as proved by the “transcript.” That would be the very same “transcript” Trump ordered released, in the delusion expectation that it would prove his innocence.

The Nixon near-impeachment illustrates the first argument. For quite a while, his defenders just tried to cover up the facts. But it didn’t work. And it never works—as long as there is an investigative body that is competent and determined.

OK, How Many Bad Acts Should be Charged in the Articles of Impeachment?

Good question. But it’s premature, so I won’t offer an answer. I will instead offer a blueprint on how to find the answer.

The key is to include only charges that can only be “refuted” by

  • denying the proven facts, or by
  • defending the indefensible.

The Ukraine scandal meets this test. Many others do not. Example: the charge of collusion with Russia in 2016 is factually complicated and murky. Example: the bogus “national emergency” to fund the Mexican wall is unconstitutional and contrary to our system of government. But the relevant statutory law is complicated, giving the Trump side the opportunity to make us all lose our way in the weeds. So leave it out.

The second key is to avoid accusing Trump of specific statutory crimes, and keep the focus on the overall concept of abuse of office. Impeachable offenses need not be statutory crimes, and statutory crimes need not be impeachable offenses.

What’s Left, Other Than Ukrainegate?

Three come to mind.

One, there is talk about how Trump may have actually said he was unconcerned about Russian electoral interference during his 2017 meeting with the Russian ambassador. If proved, I think that would fill the bill.

Two, if it can be proved by irrefutable evidence, misusing office for pecuniary gain would qualify.

Three, obstruction of Congress during the course of the impeachment inquiry would probably be on the list. (Prior numerous acts of obstruction should be impeachable in principle, but probably do not qualify for inclusion because of the legal quibbles that each obstructive act would engender. Keep it simple, stupid. Obstruction of the impeachment inquiry itself is a different breed of cat.)

So, How Many Articles Should There Be?

As many as meet the stringent tests I have laid out. If they fill the bill, put ‘em in. If not, leave ‘em out.

**

Greetings to today’s reader. The U.S. leads, followed in second place by Kenya, but with Canada in strong contention to overtake Kenya. Mauritius is in solid fourth place. Go Mauritius! Also in the running so far: Japan, Taiwan, the U.K., and Russia. HELLO VLADIMIR!

Do Not Read This Post, President Trump

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If I thought Trump might be reading this post, I would not put it up. Because I want to mention three things that might help him get his tits out of the wringer.

Trump has three big problems. They are quite different, but they are going to intersect and interact with each other over the coming months. Here is what he needs to do about each problem.

Throw Rudy Giuliani Under the Bus, Then Back Over Him Several Times

The whole Ukrainian mess had its origins with Rudy Giuliani’s madness. Trump should announce that Rudy deceived him, and he now regrets the whole thing. Wouldn’t make him look good. But I think it would slow down the impeachment train. Bigly.

Abjectly Surrender to the Chinese, and Then Proclaim a Huuuuuuge Victory

It would fool his most gullible followers, greatly relieve the plutocrats, and prevent his political troubles from playing out in a time of grave economic troubles.

Get Medical Help for His Deteriorating Mental State

‘Nuff said.

Of Gaslighting, the Mueller Report, and the Ukraine “Transcript”

Gaslighting

“Transcript” of the July 25 Ukraine call, as declassified and released by Trump, but with my highlight of words of solicitation and agreement

Gaslighting was, of course, the first instinct of Trump and his spokesbots. It worked pretty well on the Mueller Report, and for all I know it may work again. But several points are worth considering.

Trump is Bound Hand and Foot to the “Transcript”

Trump claims that the Mueller Report was written by his political enemies—“17 angry Democrats.” The “transcript” was prepared by people working directly for Trump.

Trump claims that the Mueller Report is full of lies. By contrast, he has endorsed, authenticated, and given his seal of approval to the “Transcript” as an accurate account of the words he used in speaking with the president of Ukraine and the words the Ukrainian president used in speaking to him.

Reading and Understanding the “Transcript” is Easy

The Mueller Report is 448 pages long. The “transcript” of the July 25 call is less than five pages long.

The Mueller Report is dense and requires close reading. The “transcript is easy to read. Perusing it only takes a few minutes, and understanding it is easy for anyone with a basic understanding of the English language.

The Context in Which the Conversation Occurred: Unexplained Holdup of Military Assistance

Trump cannot deny—and does not, to my knowledge, deny—that when the conversation occurred he was holding up several hundred million dollars in U.S. military assistance, recently mandated by Congress.

Trump cannot deny—and does not, to my knowledge, deny—that he has never offered any explanation for the holdup of the military aid, let alone a coherent or plausible explanation.

Trump cannot deny—and does not, to my knowledge, deny—that he only lifted his hold on military aid after the public learned of the whistleblower complaint.

Not only is there no explanation as to why the aid was held up in the first place, there is also no explanation as to why the ban was lifted, or as to why it was lifted when it was lifted, and not at some other time.

What the “Transcript” Says About Solicitation and Agreement

News accounts and talking heads speak of Trump asking for Ukrainian help in digging up dirt on (1) spurious reports of some kind of Ukraine-Democratic conspiracy in 2016 and (2) Joe Biden and his son. That is so, but the “transcript” actually discloses an agreement between the two presidents that Ukraine would provide these boons to Trump, or would at least try to do so. Look at the language I have highlighted, by clicking on the link at the top of this post.

The Legal, Moral, and Political Significance of Solicitation and Agreement

This solicitation and agreement may violate the campaign finance law, the anti-bribery law, and/or the federal anti-extortion law, though in each case there are potential legal technicalities.

It follows that an unqualified assertion that Trump violated one or more of these statutes invites a response based on legal pettifogging and obfuscation.

But an assertion that Trump grossly abused his power invites and demands a substantive debate about whether Trump’s behavior was “OK” or “not OK.”

First Aggravating Factor: An Agreement Coerced by Withholding Military Assistance to a Nation Under Attack

The solicitation and agreement, without more, probably violate three federal criminal statutes and are, in any event, a gross abuse of office.

It’s even worse if the agreement was coerced by Trump’s withholding of military aid and threating to keep on withholding aid unless the Ukrainians actually dish up the requested dirt.

The existence of such a coercive linkage is strongly suggested by

  • the language at the bottom of page 2 of the “transcript” and the top of page 3, and
  • the otherwise unexplained denial of needed military aid.

That said, I am unhappy with some of the rhetoric surrounding this matter, as my previous post indicates.

Second Aggravating Factor: Did Trump Knowingly Seek False Information on 2016 or on the Bidens?

It’s clear that sometimes Trump lies through his teeth and knows it; sometimes proclaims his delusions as fact; and sometimes throws claims around in the same way that Harry Potter used his wand—magically to change reality to his liking. It’s also clear that it’s often hard to tell which if these is going on.

And that, I believe, is the case here. Democrats should not make the validity of their arguments for impeachment turn in any on proof about Trump’s state of mind.

Of Mob Boss Behavior, Trump, and the Ukrainians

Trump Gangster

I believe it’s entirely legitimate to compare Trump’s behavior to that of a mob boss. But I also believe such language may not be helpful. Here is my reasoning.

If the intended audience is committed anti-Trumpers, the rhetoric is unnecessary.

If the intended audience is people previously committed to Trump, or inclined to sit on the fence, the rhetoric probably will not be helpful

The rhetoric demands that the hearers conflate three steps in the reasoning process. Step one is simply getting them to read the document and rub their noses in what was said—specifically the part where Zelinsky speaks of buying mobile anti-tank missiles and Trump turns immediately to asking for a “favor.”

The reader needs to understand that this is the language of reciprocity. The two topics are related, not unrelated. It’s not as if, during the course of a serious conversation, there was an idle aside at the Ukrainian team’s chances in World Cup competition.

And remember two things. First, the audience to whom you’re speaking is made up of people who like Trump or who are open to liking Trump. And, second, Trump released the damn “transcript” himself. It’s natural to assume that he would only release the “transcript” if he were convinced in exculpated him, not that it inculpated him. Why would you release a document that proved your guilt? Only a really stupid person would do such a thing.

So, don’t assume that getting readers to accept an accurate interpretation of the words on the paper will be easy. But if you get there, the second step is to have a discussion about whether conditioning military aid on help against your political opponent is right or wrong.

Not legal or illegal. Right or wrong.

Once the hearer accepts what the words on the paper say, and accepts that the situation they describe is profoundly wrong, then you get to the question of what adjectives, adverbs, and analogies best describe the situation.

Articles of Impeachment Against William Jefferson Clinton

Bill Clinton

Articles Adopted by the House of Representatives

On December 11, 1998, the House Judiciary Committee passed four articles of impeachment, but the House of Representatives only adopted two, Articles I and III. The text of the two articles adopted by the full House of Representatives follows.

RESOLUTION  

Impeaching William Jefferson Clinton, President of the United States, for high crimes and misdemeanors.

Resolved. That William Jefferson Clinton, President of the United States, is impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors, and that the following articles impeachment be exhibited to the United States Senate:

Articles of impeachment exhibited by the House of Representatives of the United States of America in the name of itself and of the people of the United States of America, against William Jefferson Clinton, President of the United States of America, in maintenance and support of its impeachment against him for high crimes and misdemeanors.

ARTICLE I  

In his conduct while President of the United States, William Jefferson Clinton, in violation of his constitutional oath faithfully to execute the office of President of the United States and, to the best of his ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, and in violation of his constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, has willfully corrupted and manipulated the judicial process of the United States for his personal gain and exoneration, impeding the administration of justice, in that:

On August 17, 1998, William Jefferson Clinton swore to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth before a Federal grand jury of the United States. Contrary to that oath, William Jefferson Clinton willfully provided perjurious, false and misleading testimony to the grand jury concerning one or more of the following:

(1) the nature and details of his relationship with a subordinate Government employee;

(2) prior perjurious, false and misleading testimony he gave in a Federal civil rights action brought against him;

(3) prior false and misleading statements he allowed his attorney to make to a Federal judge in that civil rights action; and

(4) his corrupt efforts to influence the testimony of witnesses and to impede the discovery of evidence in that civil rights action.

In doing this, William Jefferson Clinton has undermined the integrity of his office, has brought disrepute on the Presidency, has betrayed his trust as President, and has acted in a manner subversive of the rule of law and justice, to the manifest injury of the people of the United States.

Wherefore, William Jefferson Clinton, by such conduct, warrants impeachment and trial, and removal from office and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust or profit under the United States.

ARTICLE III  

In his conduct while President of the United States, William Jefferson Clinton, in violation of his constitutional oath faithfully to execute the office of President of the United States and, to the best of his ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, and in violation of his constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, has prevented, obstructed, and impeded the administration of justice, and has to that end engaged personally, and through his subordinates and agents, in a course of conduct or scheme designed to delay, impede, cover up, and conceal the existence of evidence and testimony related to a Federal civil rights action brought against him in a duly instituted judicial proceeding.

The means used to implement this course of conduct or scheme included one or more of the following acts:

(1) On or about December 17, 1997, William Jefferson Clinton corruptly encouraged a witness in a Federal civil rights action brought against him to execute a sworn affidavit in that proceeding that he knew to be perjurious, false and misleading.

(2) On or about December 17, 1997, William Jefferson Clinton corruptly encouraged a witness in a Federal civil rights action brought against him to give perjurious, false and misleading testimony if and when called to testify personally in that proceeding.

(3)On or about December 28, 1997, William Jefferson Clinton corruptly engaged in, encouraged, or supported a scheme to conceal evidence that had been subpoenaed in a Federal civil rights action brought against him.

(4)Beginning on or about December 7, 1997, and continuing through and including January 14, 1998, William Jefferson Clinton intensified and succeeded in an effort to secure job assistance to a witness in a Federal civil rights action brought against him in order to corruptly prevent the truthful testimony of that witness in that proceeding at a time when the truthful testimony of that witness would have been harmful to him.

(5) On January 17, 1998, at his deposition in a Federal civil rights action brought against him, William Jefferson Clinton corruptly allowed his attorney to make false and misleading statements to a Federal judge characterizing an affidavit, in order to prevent questioning deemed relevant by the judge. Such false and misleading statements were subsequently acknowledged by his attorney in a communication to that judge.

(6) On or about January 18 and January 20-21, 1998, William Jefferson Clinton related a false and misleading account of events relevant to a Federal civil rights action brought against him to a potential witness in that proceeding, in order to corruptly influence the testimony of that witness.

(7) On or about January 21, 23 and 26, 1998, William Jefferson Clinton made false and misleading statements to potential witnesses in a Federal grand jury proceeding in order to corruptly influence the testimony of those witnesses. The false and misleading statements made by William Jefferson Clinton were repeated by the witnesses to the grand jury, causing the grand jury to receive false and misleading information.

In all of this, William Jefferson Clinton has undermined the integrity of his office, has brought disrepute on the Presidency, has betrayed his trust as President, and has acted in a manner subversive of the rule of law and justice, to the manifest injury of the people of the United States.

Wherefore, William Jefferson Clinton, by such conduct, warrants impeachment and trial, and removal from office and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust or profit under the United States. 

Articles NOT Adopted by the House of Representatives

Articles II and IV were not adopted. The text of these two rejected articles follows.

ARTICLE II 

In his conduct while President of the United States, William Jefferson Clinton, in violation of his constitutional oath faithfully to execute the office of President of the United States and, to the best of his ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, and in violation of his constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, has willfully corrupted and manipulated the judicial process of the United States for his personal gain and exoneration, impending the administration of justice, in that:

(1) On December 23, 1997, William Jefferson Clinton, in sworn answers to written questions asked as part of a Federal civil rights action brought against him, willfully provided perjurious, false and misleading testimony in response to questions deemed relevant by a Federal judge concerning conduct and proposed conduct with subordinate employees.

(2) On January 17, 1988, William Jefferson Clinton swore under oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth in a deposition given as part of a Federal civil rights action brought against him. Contrary to that oath, William Jefferson Clinton willfully provided perjurious, false and misleading testimony in repose to questions deemed relevant by a Federal judge concerning the nature and details of his relationship with a subordinate government employee and his corrupt efforts to influence the testimony of that employee.

In all of this, William Jefferson Clinton has undermined the integrity of his office, has brought disrepute on the Presidency, has betrayed his trust as President, and has acted in a manner subversive of the rule of law and justice, to the manifest injury of the people of the United States.

Wherefore, William Jefferson Clinton, by such conduct, warrants impeachment and trial, and removal from office and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust or profit under the United States.

ARTICLE IV 

Using the powers and influence of the office of President of the United States, William Jefferson Clinton, in violation of his constitutional oath faithfully to execute the office of President of the United States and, to the best of his ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, and in disregard of his constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, has engaged in conduct that resulted in misuse and abuse of his high office, impaired the due and proper administration of justice and the conduct of lawful inquiries, and contravened the authority of the legislative branch and the truth-seeking purpose of a coordinate investigative proceeding in that, as President, William Jefferson Clinton, refused and failed to respond to certain written requests for admission and willfully made perjurious, false and misleading sworn statements in response to certain written requests for admission propounded to him as part of the impeachment inquiry authorized by the House of Representatives of the Congress of the United States.

William Jefferson Clinton, in refusing and failing to respond, and in making perjurious, false and misleading statements, assumed to himself functions and judgments necessary to the exercise of the sole power of impeachment vested by the Constitution in the House of Representatives and exhibited contempt for the inquiry. 

In doing this, William Jefferson Clinton has undermined the integrity of his office, has brought disrepute on the Presidency, has betrayed his trust as President, and has acted in a manner subversive of the rule of law and justice, to the manifest injury of the people of the United States.

Wherefore, William Jefferson Clinton, by such conduct, warrants impeachment and trial, and removal from office and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust or profit under the United States