8

With respect to Trump telling Sondland "I want nothing" (which was used/repeated as a defense by other Trump allies), an opinion piece in the Washington Post claims that this might be a Trump pattern when he (really) wants something politically iffy or downright illegal:

What we’re hearing is that Trump basically said: Lemme be clear, this isn’t a quid pro quo. But Zelensky’s gotta do what I need here. And he’s gotta do it all on his own. Otherwise, we’re kinda stuck, you hear what I’m saying? But lemme be clear: This isn’t a quid pro quo. Got it?

Indeed, Sondland himself has all but confirmed that this is how Trump communicated to him. In his own testimony, Sondland described it this way:

“He said: I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. I want Zelensky to do the right thing," Sondland testified. "And I said: What does that mean? And he said: I want him to do what he ran on.”

In other words: I’m not telling Zelensky what to do. He needs to do what I want him to do all on his own. He ran on fighting corruption, right? So when will he do what he promised and investigate the corruption of the Bidens?

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard this. Here’s how former Trump fixer Michael Cohen described Trump’s crime-boss vernacular when testifying about Trump’s negotiation of a real estate project in Moscow during the 2016 campaign:

Mr. Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress. That’s not how he operates. In conversations we had during the campaign, at the same time I was actively negotiating in Russia for him, he would look me in the eye and tell me there’s no business in Russia and then go out and lie to the American people by saying the same thing. In his way, he was telling me to lie.

It is very likely that this is exactly how Trump communicated that Sondland should convey the demand — which is basically a solicitation of a bribe — to Ukraine. The witness testimony cited above underscores this possibility.

As that piece further comments, sending contradictory messages is a way for Trump to preserve plausible deniability. Actually, it's not the first time a WaPo article has claimed something like that about Trump. Back in 2017:

For President Trump, though, plausible deniability is a way of life. The ability to pretend he didn’t actually say what he seems to have just said is something Trump has weaponized and exploited. It’s something he wields against his opponents in an effort to constantly muddy the waters and rally his supporters against a common enemy.

But the examples in that older article involve Trump statements to the press that might be described as allusions or even dog whistles, rather than what he might have asked other people to do.

As a Columbia Journalism Review article commented:

Trump has forced reporters into the awkward position of trying to evaluate what his supporters might hear. Exact phrasing doesn’t matter. In fact, Trump’s typical word salad provides something of a frontline defense against critical media coverage of his more ridiculous statements. [...]

The reality TV star’s genius lies in a simple trick: He raises ideas while at the same time distancing himself from them just enough to deflect criticism. He establishes some measure of plausible deniability—at least for those who take his statements at face value. Many voters see through this rhetorical ballet, but it poses problems for mainstream news organizations bound by journalistic norms.

So, besides that Cohen example that the later WaPo piece gave, are there any other examples of Trump sending such mixed/contradictory signals in cases where he (allegedly) was hoping for someone to do something?

  • Russia, if you're listening ... – Peter Nov 25 '19 at 9:29
  • Interesting theory that would explain a lot of Trump's behavior, and Trump did grow up involved in the New York city construction industry - hardly a wellspring of clean, legal, above-board financial transactions. Plausible deniability could very well be something he's used to... But Cohen was convicted of perjury, so his credibility is somewhat suspect. And he has a book to sell. Do you have any other sources who could have first-hand knowledge of such acts that corroborate Cohen's statements? – Just Me Nov 25 '19 at 23:02
  • It's also not lost on me that having someone like Michael Cohen as your personal attorney could also be considered an extension of a "build plausible deniability" theory. Having a dirty lawyer handle your dirty business fits right in with building plausible deniability - "Why would you believe him? He's dirty!" – Just Me Nov 25 '19 at 23:11
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So, besides that Cohen example that the later WaPo piece gave, are there any other examples of Trump sending such mixed/contradictory signals in cases where he (allegedly) was hoping for someone to do something?

Birtherism

This was a position he held before being president. Just before he was elected president, he backtracked.

One tweet dated 6 August 2012:

An 'extremely credible source' has called my office and told me that @BarackObama's birth certificate is a fraud.

CNBC reporting dated 16 September 2016:

“President Barack Obama was born in the United States. Period,” the GOP presidential candidate said in nationally televised comments. “And now we all want to get back to making America strong and great again.”

Another somewhat contradictory tweet dated 30 September 2016:

Anytime you see a story about me or my campaign saying "sources said," DO NOT believe it. There are no sources, they are just made up lies!

Climate change is a hoax, no I don't think it's a hoax

For a timeline on Trump's statements on climate and weather, see this Mother Jones article (coverage until 2018). At times he has said this is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese to harm the US. Sometimes he's used this to criticize scientists and others he's conceded he doesn't believe it's a hoax.

Tweeting on 6 November 2012:

The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.

Tweeting on 6 December 2013:

Ice storm rolls from Texas to Tennessee - I'm in Los Angeles and it's freezing. Global warming is a total, and very expensive, hoax!

Then in a CBS interview dated 15 October 2018, it's not a hoax (emphasis mine):

Lesley Stahl: Do you still think that climate change is a hoax?

President Donald Trump: I think something's happening. Something's changing and it'll change back again. I don't think it's a hoax, I think there's probably a difference. But I don't know that it's manmade. I will say this. I don't wanna give trillions and trillions of dollars. I don't wanna lose millions and millions of jobs. I don't wanna be put at a disadvantage.

An example of how this confusion helps the administration to control some of the scientists' work, From Politico's Agriculture Department buries studies showing dangers of climate change:

The Trump administration has refused to publicize dozens of government-funded studies that carry warnings about the effects of climate change, defying a longstanding practice of touting such findings by the Agriculture Department’s acclaimed in-house scientists.

The administration, researchers said, appears to be trying to limit the circulation of evidence of climate change and avoid press coverage that may raise questions about the administration’s stance on the issue.

“The intent is to try to suppress a message — in this case, the increasing danger of human-caused climate change,” said Michael Mann, a leading climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University. “Who loses out? The people, who are already suffering the impacts of sea level rise and unprecedented super storms, droughts, wildfires and heat waves.”

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