Donald Trump, The Times and the "Non-Denial Denial"
After the New York Times published an extensive, on-the-record, post-election interview with Donald Trump, the president-elect's airbrushers and apologists pushed a narrative that he retreated from his extreme campaign platform. CNN said Trump "has begun moderating some of his toughest positions." The New York Daily News splashed a tabloid front-page whipping up his orange hair into ice-cream with the headline "Mister Softie."
That's only true if you completely ignore the substance of Trump's comments, but the actual Times transcript is a classic in the pantheon of a particular breed of Beltway doublespeak: the “non-denial denial,” perfected by Richard Nixon in masking his crimes at Watergate.
For the uninitiated, this video from the popular YouTube channel Vlogbrothers gives a brief history.
Here are just a few of the times Trump used this rhetorical sleight-of-hand:
Political Prosecution: Contrary to the Times' own headline, Trump did not "drop" his vow to prosecute Clinton. He de-prioritized it. Read the transcript closely. He explicitly refused to rule out the possibility, and he can investigate his former, current and future political rivals whenever he wants. His base is already pressuring him to do so. He never expressed any regret for whipping crowds up into chants of "Lock her up!" for months, blaming an impersonally "vicious" election year for the unpleasantness. Climate change: Trump said he wanted to keep an “open mind” on whether to trust the overwhelming scientific consensus or his memories of his uncle. He then pushed a discredited conspiracy theory called Climategate, based a seven-year-old leak of Swiss scientists' emails. "I know we have, they say they have science on one side but then they also have those horrible emails that were sent between the scientists," Trump told the Times. Eight independent inquiries cleared those scientists of any wrongdoing, but nobody in the Times newsroom challenged that bit of disinformation. Corruption: Trump's defense of his casual mixing of family, corporate and White House business blends the typical non-denial denial with word salad. "As far as the, you know, potential conflict of interests, though, I mean I know that from the standpoint, the law is totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest," Trump said. "That’s been reported very widely. Despite that, I don’t want there to be a conflict of interest anyway." Trump also said that “in theory I could run my business perfectly, and then run the country perfectly.” That’s a kleptocrat’s credo. Extremism: For all of his insults toward Mexicans, Muslims, women, reporters and the disabled, Trump only tepidly disavowed the neo-Nazis who gathered in Washington D.C. recently to celebrate his victory. Trump finally agreed to “condemn” them after an unidentified Times staffer prompted him to do so. Trump denied that Stephen Bannon, who specifically promoted Breitbart as an alt-right platform, is a member of the alt-right. Torture: Trump told the Times that he learned from his conversation with Gen. John Mattis that torture is not effective. Notice how he did not say immoral and illegal, and he defended the concept of waterboarding in principle. "I’m not saying [the general] changed my mind," Trump hedged, referring to his previous pro-torture position. “Look, we have people that are chopping off heads and drowning people in steel cages and we’re not allowed to waterboard." The Army Field Manual’s Appendix M, which was never outlawed, allows for interrogation techniques (such as extreme isolation and sleep manipulation) that human rights lawyers call cruel, inhuman and degrading. Even without passing any new law, a Trump White House has that power at its disposal. Freedom of the Press: Trump said he reconsidered loosening of libel laws once he learned that futzing with free-speech protections could open himself up to more lawsuits. Bottom line, Trump will continue to try to antagonize, sideline and censor the press as much he can without personally suffering blowback. Nobody should mistake Trump's charm offensive on the Times reporters he rallied against all election season as a sign of newfound respect.
Trump's biggest post-election pivot is toward a more deceptive political and corporate jargon. The fact that Trump chose a slicker messaging does not change or improve his agenda.