What I learned from Treasury Secretary Nominee Steven Mnuchin on how to duck a tough question

In his testimony before the Senate on January 19, 2017, Treasury Secretary nominee Steven Mnuchin taught us all a valuable lesson in how to duck a difficult question. The question he was asked had to do with why he initially failed to disclose $100 million worth personal investments and his status as director of Dune Capital International, an investment fund incorporated in the Cayman Islands (a tax haven) and his management posts with seven separate investment funds. As reported in an article in the New York Times today, “‘In his revised questionnaire, Mr. Mnuchin disclosed several additional financial assets, including $95 million worth of real estate — a co-op in New York City, a residence in Southampton, New York, a residence in Los Angeles, California, and $15 million in real estate holdings in Mexico,’ Democratic staff members of the Senate Finance Committee wrote in a memo on Thursday. ‘Mr. Mnuchin has claimed these omissions were due to a misunderstanding of the questionnaire.’”

Here’s how Mnuchin responded: “Let me first say, any oversight, it was unintentional.”

The brilliance of the construction “… any oversight, it was unintentional.”

Let me be the first one to say that the construction “… any oversight, it was unintentional” is not rendered ineffective by its inherent redundancy. “Oversight” is defined as an unintentional failure to notice or do something (synonyms: mistake, error, omission, lapse, slip, blunder). In mathematics or logic, this phrase boils down to a garden variety identity (e.g., A = A). But the real brilliance of the phrase is its deployment within the context of answering a serious and direct question under oath about matters of high importance to the entire nation. When pressed to explain why Mnuchin excluded important information from his initial financial disclosure statement, he responded by saying (and I’m paraphrasing here) that if he forgot to include info, then he would be willing to admit that he forgot to include them. Notice how he says absolutely nothing about what he did or did not do, but instead treats the question as if it were answerable with an if-then statement. Meanwhile, because most of us aren’t satisfied with an if-then statement as an answer to a pointed question, we try to see some substance in the answer. Let me point out that we do this by giving ourselves the impression, however short-lived, that the noun “oversight” covers both intentional and unintentional instances of applicability. With “oversight” redefined in this way, Mnuchin could be thought to have answered the question more directly by saying that, if anything, he forgot to include information and would never have excluded anything intentionally. So much for what we wish we could have heard from Mnuchin.

Let me say that part of the slipperiness of the word “oversight” stems from its status as a contronym, which is a word with two opposite meanings (e.g., sanction — which can mean both ‘a penalty for disobeying a law’ and ‘official permission or approval for an action’). The verb “oversight” means the action of intentionally monitoring or looking after something (as in “effective oversight of the financial reporting process”). Mnuchin will have to exercise a great deal of oversight in the position of Secretary of the Treasury, and we’re all hoping that if his nomination is confirmed that he will say at the close of his service as Secretary, “Let me first say, any oversight, it was intentional.

The Power of the Phrase “Let me first say …”

Mnuchin is a big fan asking for permission as a prelude to making a statement. You may have noticed that I’ve used this phrase a number of times myself in this article. Here is a small sample of some of the instances of Mnuchin’s use of this phrase in the media over the years:

  • Let me be clear: my group had nothing to do with the creation of the risky …
  • Let me first say what I’ve really been focused on is being a regional banker …
  • Let me just say our most important priority is to …
  • Let me first say, and I’ve heard a lot of people say, this was a …
  • First, let me comment on the polls.
  • Let me put it this way: when I first read Jesse’s piece, I did not follow …
  • Let me tell you one of the most proud aspects of my career was buying …

This is how the phrase works. You’ve all heard of putting your best foot forward and making a good first impression. Well, by asking permission to speak, you flood your listeners’ minds with the subconscious impression that you have ceded to them your power to speak and that it is now completely within their power to allow you to speak or not. This gives people a very real sense of power, even though the First Amendment to the constitution allows for freedom of expression and we don’t really need to ask permission before speaking in most conversations that we conduct in our daily lives. You win a certain number of extra brownie points at the very outset that can have all sorts of positive effects on how your actual message is received. It can cause the listener to trust the speaker more and make whatever the content of the message is seem more credible. Its brevity is essential because “If you would permit me the courtesy of allowing myself, your humble servant, to share a few thoughts with you, I would be enormously in your debt” comes across as obsequious. “Let me” possess the same power of brevity shared with “thank you” and “you’re welcome” and all those other everyday social graces.