Comey, Trump, and the Chihuahua of Truth
It’s April, 2008, and the former head of the FBI, James Comey, and President Donald Trump are going at each other with white hot intensity in the accusation- and insult-exchanging equivalent of a nasty cage fight. Meanwhile, the truth, like a short-leashed Chihuahua, scurries between them trying not to get crushed and tangled by dancing feet and flailing bodies. Charges of lying and leaking fly, while the combatants fire off claims of incompetence, obstruction of justice, and worse. It’s easy in this situation to focus on the main adversaries and play a guessing game with regard to the truth.
But this article takes a look down at that unfortunate Chihuahua hopping around, and focuses on objective truth and undeniable facts. The idea being that if you know which dog is in the fight, you can’t be fooled when they wag the dog. Truth is small, vulnerable, and easy to overlook. Let’s take a look.
Sometimes the truth gets crushed underfoot. Here’s a great example, from the President’s Press Secretary no less. After Comey testified before Congress for three hours, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders dismissed Comey’s testimony during an off-camera briefing Thursday.
“I can definitely say the President is not a liar, and I think it’s frankly insulting that question would be asked,” she said.
At first look, Sanders’ statement makes it seem like she believes the President is not a liar. But let’s take a closer look. The phrase “I can definitely say [fill in the blank]” is on its face a statement that the speaker is capable of saying something. I am capable of saying that the moon is made of green cheese. I can even go so far as to say “I can definitely say the moon is made of green cheese.” But in saying that, I am not stating that I believe that astronauts can make nachos out of the moon. What I am saying is that I can definitely say anything I want. I can definitely say “Gobbledygook Fiddlesticks is a 100 foot tall purple flying elephant.” There, I said it. Doesn’t make it true in any sense. Simply reaffirms that I am capable of saying something, anything.
But Sanders’ follows that phrase up with “and I think it’s frankly insulting that question would be asked.” The question is, presumably, “Is Trump a liar?” Notice that she leads this phrase off with “I think it’s frankly”. Now if she had led off the first phrase with “I think, frankly,” it would read “I think, frankly, that the President is not a liar.” In that case, Sanders would be making an affirmative statement that she truly and honestly believes the President is not a liar. But she saved her “frankly” for the second phrase. The second phrase is a complaint that the question she was asked seems insulting. The use of “frankly” in the second phrase (and not the first) makes the first phrase seem less frank, less honest. Otherwise, why emphasize that she’s being frank in the second phrase and not emphasize honesty in the first phrase? Like a skilled lawyer, Sanders, by saying “I can definitely say…”, was presumably able to fool many listeners and readers into believing that she was asserting her own personal belief that the President is not a liar, when in fact the only thing her words denote is that she is merely capable of saying such a thing (not that she necessarily believes it to be true).
Pay attention to the phrasing of words. A simple rephrasing can let the speaker off the hook. For example, if ever Sanders wants to say she was lied to by the President (as she might if she writes a book about her experience in the White House), we could confront her with her phrase “I definitely can say that the President is not a liar”. But she could quite easily use my interpretation of her own words to say she was simply saying she was capable of saying that, not that she believed it to be true. She could even say that the use of “frankly” in her second phrase indicates that the first phrase wasn’t as frank as the second. And she could follow that up by saying she’s always felt that being asked if someone is a liar is an insulting question. In this way she would be cleansing herself of any lies or inconsistencies. It’s all in the phrasing.