Interpreting non-answers from Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren

elizabeth warren
Image: CBS Morning News and Mediaite

Politicians (and other people) often can’t or won’t answer a question. How they respond says a lot about who they are.

If they were honest, they would say “I won’t answer that” and then say why. But instead, they just take the airtime and answer some other question they’d rather talk about.

For example, Mediaite recently published an article about Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, titled “Elizabeth Warren Manages to Dodge Every Single Question in CBS Interview.” And she did. Take this exchange, for example, between CBS’ Charlie Rose and Senator Warren:

Q: Are you enthusiastic in your support of [Supreme Court nominee] Judge Garland?

Warren: . . . Filling a Supreme Court vacancy is one of the most solemn tasks undertaken by this government. This isn’t supposed to be a circus. The president has done his job, he has sent us a nominee, and now it is our job to hold hearings, to examine his credentials, and then to have a vote on him. That’s what the constitution calls for.

Q: With respect Senator, the question I asked was will you support Judge Garland?

Warren: But that’s the whole point right now, is that we want Judge Garland to come over, I want to meet with him, I want to look at his credentials, I want to see him perform in a hearing, and then I want to be able to have a vote on him. That’s what advise and consent means. It’s not supposed to be some kind of crazy political process.

Warren doesn’t have a position yet, or doesn’t want to reveal her position. So she talks about a related issue, which is the broken confirmation process. We see this all the time when, for example, a candidate in a debate gives his stock “education answer” to any question about education, even if the answer doesn’t match the question.

Compare this to Donald Trump’s recent answer to a question from the Washington Post.

Q: Do you see any racial disparities in law enforcement ?

Trump: I’ve read where there are and I’ve read where there aren’t. I mean, I’ve read both. And, you know, I have no opinion on that. Because frankly, what I’m saying is you know we have to create incentives for people to go back and to reinvigorate the areas and to put people to work.  And you know we have lost million and millions of jobs to China and other countries. And they’ve been taken out of this country, and when I say millions, you know it’s, it’s tremendous. [Followed by hundreds more words about jobs going overseas and investment for jobs in economic zones.]

So a question about race gets an answer about economic opportunities. That tells you where Trump thinks the problem is (although it’s a stretch to see jobs in China as the reason why police shoot black people). Is Trump worse than Warren because he’s skittered so completely away from the subject, or better at taking charge of the topic he wants to talk about? (Both.) But even more amazing is what happened when the Post followed up with a question about economic improvement zones in cities.

Q: Can I follow up on that? it’s not as if no one has ever said before we should have economic zones, it’s not as if no one has ever said before we need incentives and taxes etc., etc. And Baltimore received a lot of federal aid over the years. . . . What’s different specifically about your approach to these issues from what’s been tried in the past, because a lot of effort has been put in just the direction you just described.

Trump: I think what’s different is we have a very divided country. And whether we like it or not, it’s divided as bad as I’ve ever seen it. I‘ve been, you know, I’ve been doing things for a long time. I see it all the time. I mean I see it so often. I see it when we go out and we have 21,000 people in Phoenix, Arizona, the other day, the division – not so much Phoenix, because that was actually very smooth, there wasn’t even a minor, they did block a road, but after that, that was Sheriff Joe Arpaio, when the road was unblocked everyone left and it was fine. But in Tucson, you can see the division. You can see the division. There’s a racial division that’s incredible actually in the country. I think it’s as bad, I mean you have to say it’s as bad or almost as bad as it’s ever been. And there’s a lack of spirit. And one thing I thought that would happen, and it hasn’t happened, unfortunately, I thought that President Obama would be a great cheerleader for the country. And it just hasn’t happened. I mean we can say it has. But it hasn’t happened. When you look at the Ferguson problems and the Baltimore problems and the Detroit problems. And you know there’s a lack of spirit. I actually think I’d be a great cheerleader – beyond other things, the other things that I’d do – I actually think I’d be a great cheerleader for the country. Because a lot of people feel it’s a hopeless situation. A lot of people in the inner cities they feel that way. And you have to start by giving them hope and giving them spirit and that has not taken place.

Putting aside the ramble about Sheriff Arpaio, Trump answers an inner-city economics question with an answer about racial divisions — that he’d solve the problem by being the cheerleader-in chief.

No matter which side the politician is on, getting answers to difficult questions is like nailing Jell-O to a wall. And with the strange free-association stream-of-consciousness of Trump, that Jell-O could go anywhere.

And yet you have to listen, because the non-answers reveal a lot. Here’s what you’re really hearing when you’re not hearing an answer, whether it’s a cogent non-answer from Elizabeth Warren or a stream of loosely connected thoughts from Donald Trump:

I don’t want to answer that question. I haven’t taken a position. Maybe I haven’t even thought about it. Or I realize that no matter what answer I give, I can’t win, so I’d rather not say an answer on the record. But you’ve given me airtime, so I’m going to talk about something that relates to the question in my mind. Based on my answer, you can tell what I think is unimportant (the issue you raised) and what is important (the answer I give). That’s actually pretty revealing, if people were actually listening.

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  1. This is one of the first things they teach in media training. Don’t want to answer the question? Bridge to something you DO want to answer.

    It’s like taking the 5th: “I refuse to answer on the grounds that it may incriminate me.” The media fails us is by allowing interviewees bridge without noting it. If the interviewer said “Would you like to answer, or would you prefer to bridge?” and then the person bridged again, the interviewer should calmly note that, e.g. “OK, Ms. Warren has chosen to Bridge rather than answer”. No confrontation, just flag the BS for the folks at home.

    1. I wouldn’t call it out as Bridging, per se… because that is inside baseball, and some viewers will get confused as to who is doing the obfuscating.

      I would simply UnBridge.

      “I’ll ask you about the importance of the process in a moment, but you had agreed to appear with us to share insight into Judge Garland; have you changed your mind?”

  2. A bit unfair on Elizabeth Warren because she is saying that she wants the hearings to go ahead and for everyone to vote on Garland afterwards. Why vote for Garland in public right now? Warren was correct not to answer as it is not part of the due-process.

    We see this kind of media questioning all the time which are really there to trip the interviewee up and to just make news.

    1. Sure, but an honest answer would be “I can’t answer whether I support Garland until I meet with him.” Instead she said “Well, we should meet with him,” and didn’t answer the question.