Plausible deniability is a politician’s best friend. It’s something politicians seek to maintain in all circumstances by giving vanilla statements that offer future wiggle room.
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.
The controversy in recent days over Trump’s tweets shows exactly what he’s doing: He is constantly trolling by saying something highly suggestive — of sexism against Mika Brzezinski or of violence against CNN — and then waits for the media and his opponents to pounce before claiming persecution.
Trump is actually pretty good at this. No, I don’t think the strategy is all that effective or fruitful in the grand scheme of things, but he has at least executed his chosen strategy well. Throughout the course of his presidency, he has repeatedly gone right up to the line of doing something he cannot possibly explain, while always leaving himself an out — enough plausible deniability for the people who think he’s great to go right on thinking that.
A few notable examples:
- When he talked with Lester Holt about the Russia investigation and former FBI director James B. Comey, Trump never technically said Russia was the reason he fired Comey — only that the situation was on his mind when he fired Comey. “And in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself — I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story,” Trump said.
- When he tweeted about White House tapes, he never suggested that he personally might have them or recorded anything; he just suggested they might exist. “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” Trump tweeted. Six weeks later, Trump would clarify that he wasn’t talking about his own tapes, but the possibility that someone had them.
- When Trump congratulated himself for influencing Comey’s testimony with his tapes tweet, he suggested only that he got Comey to tell the truth. “But when he found out that I, you know, that there may be tapes out there, whether it’s governmental tapes or anything else, and who knows, I think his story may have changed,” Trump said. “I mean you’ll have to take a look at that, because then he has to tell what actually took place at the events.”
These things get reported as “Trump says he fired Comey because of Russia,” “Trump says he might have tapes of Comey” and “Trump says his tapes threat worked,” when in fact that’s not exactly what Trump said. It’s what he suggested, clearly, but he also gave himself plausible deniability that he wasn’t firing Comey because of Russia or that he wasn’t threatening Comey.
The Brzezinski tweet last week harked back to the Megyn Kelly controversy, in which it was pretty clear Trump was saying something about a woman that he would never say about a man. And the CNN tweet was perhaps the clearest example of this to date: Trump tweeting professional wrestling — which is the definition of fake violence — against a media outlet, and then having his surrogates complain that the media overreacted.
But Trump’s track record in each of these cases is crystal clear. If you say one thing that seems sexist, perhaps it could be misunderstood; when it’s happened over and over again, it’s pretty clear what’s going on. And in a vacuum, Trump’s tweet about CNN would seem somewhat harmless, but this is a president who has repeatedly promoted the prospect of violence at his campaign rallies and verbally attacked reporters, even at one point musing suggestively that he wouldn’t kill journalists. If he didn’t want us to think about violence, he sure has a funny way of showing it.
The big question is whether this is a productive pursuit for Trump. Is trying to get the media and his opponents to overreact helping him succeed with his agenda? Or is it just Trump being Trump, always needing to create the next bit of drama in his reality-TV presidency?
I suspect it’s much more the latter. And the problem with plausible deniability is that it gets much less plausible the more you rely upon it.