Republican talking points on the obstruction investigation: argumentation or “whataboutism”?

According to the Washington Post, FBI special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating Donald Trump for obstruction of justice. The Post’s White House Bureau Chief Philip Rucker tweeted a picture of the Republican National Committee’s talking points to rebut the story. It’s a good case study in the difference between blowing smoke and actual counterarguments.

Talking points are the arguments that surrogates repeat on networks like CNN or in interviews. Here’s Rucker’s tweet about the RNC talking points he received from an unnamed source:

When it comes to obstruction of justice accusations, any of these would be an actual counterargument:

  • President Trump did nothing wrong.
  • The article is wrong — Mueller is not actually investigating Trump.
  • Mueller is investigating Trump, but he is biased.

None of these arguments are in the Republican talking points.

Instead, they are mostly “whataboutism” — changing the subject to something that is even worse that somebody else did. Whataboutism sounds persuasive, until you realize the other person never denied the original accusation.

Here’s how to keep your thinking straight when listening to the shouting screamers on cable news: ask yourself “If what they are saying is true, what does that mean about the original accusation?”

So let’s break down the talking points and ask, if they are true, what do they say about whether President Trump has done something wrong? The talking points shown here in italic are from Rucker’s document.

Trump can’t be guilty of obstruction

There is no case for obstruction of justice. This point has been made by legal scholars from both sides of the aisle over and over again.

  • FBI Director Comey confirmed multiple times that President Trump or White House staff did not ask him to stop the Russia investigation in his hearing last week.
  • Legal scholars from across the spectrum, including Alan Dershowitz, Elizabeth Price Foley, and Andrew McCarthy have all stated there is no case for obstruction of justice.

Is this accurate? It’s a matter of opinion. “I hope you can see you way clear” isn’t “stop the investigation,” but it’s pretty close, especially when it follows “do you want to keep your job?” As for the obstruction case, Former Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz says you can’t prosecute the president for firing the head of the FBI, but Harvard Constitutional Law Professor Lawrence Tribe disagrees. In the end, this is up to Mueller, who clearly thinks there’s a possible crime.

Is this relevant? Partially. Even if you agree, it only means that what Trump did wasn’t illegal. It doesn’t mean that what Trump did wasn’t wrong, or isn’t an impeachable offense, which is a very different standard from being illegal. For example, Congress could determine that Trump abused his power in a way that was improper, even if he did nothing that would result in criminal prosecution.

This story comes from illegal leaks

This story is nothing more than an example of even more leaks coming out of the FBI and special counsel’s office in an effort to undermine the President. These leaks are inexcusable, outrageous, and illegal. The leaks are the only crime here.

  • There continues to be a appalling amount of illegal leaks coming out of the investigative committees.
  • The actions of these leakers are obvious examples of how members of the investigative teams are trying to undermine the President.
  • If they had a real case, they wouldn’t be leaking information.
  • In November 2016, President Obama warned against FBI “leaks” And “innuendo,” in the investigative process.
  • In 2016, Rep. Pelosi stated, “The public interest would be served by the FBI providing the facts, rather than allowing republicans to stoke innuendo and falsehoods…”
  • These leaks are inexcusable, outrageous, and illegal — and need to stop.

Is this accurate? Yes.

Is this relevant? No, it’s misdirection. Even if the leakers are doing something wrong, that doesn’t mean what they’ve leaked is false, and it doesn’t exonerate the president. It’s whataboutism.

Obama and Clinton did it too

Why is no one investigating Attorney General Lynch’s Department of Justice for obstruction of justice in the Clinton email investigation? The reality is former Director Comey suggests the president tried to influence the FBI. But, he openly admitted that Attorney General Loretta Lynch successfully influenced him. There is compelling evidence to back up the claim that AG Lynch engaged in obstruction of justice, but none to show that President Trump did so.

  • Director Comey confirmed he was very concerned about the Obama administration’s interference in the Clinton email investigation, including interference by Obama Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
  • During the pendency of the FBI server investigation, President Obama’s administration publicly stated in January 2016, that Secretary Clinton “is not the target of the investigation” and “it doesn’t seem to be headed in th[e] direction” of an indictment; and in April 2016, President Obama said that Secretary Clinton “has not jeopardized America’s national security” and “would never intentionally put America in any kind of jeopardy.”
  • These unprecedented comments unequivocally signaled to his subordinate officers President Obama’s conclusions regarding Secretary Clinton’s conduct.
  • Of course, a short time after President Obama’s April comments about the lack of intent, Director Comey used that exact basis for unilaterally announcing that “no reasonable prosecutor” would charge Secretary Clinton even though the relevant statute did not even require intent.
  • Former Director Comey admitted last week that Attorney General Loretta Lynch instructed FBI Director Comey to stop calling his investigation an “investigation” and instead call it a “matter,” which he immediately began doing.
  • In this context, and in any context, it is obvious that none of President Trump’s purported statements constituted obstruction alone, and especially, in the context of President Obama’s far more extensive comments about the Clinton investigation that were never investigated as obstructive.
  • Clinton’s team even destroyed electronic devices with hammers and bleach. Comey and the FBI turned a blind eye to this fact. How is this not obstruction!?

Is this accurate? This argument cherry-picks statements and strings them together into an argument — the idea that Obama’s statements “signaled” what Comey was supposed to do is weak. In the end, Comey’s investigation continued and damaged Hillary Clinton’s campaign. (And while it doesn’t really matter, Clinton never used bleach on anything — her technical people used a tool called “Bleachbit” to wipe her servers of data.)

Is this relevant? Whether Trump’s actions were wrong has nothing to do with what Obama and Clinton did. It’s more whataboutism. And there’s a big difference between Obama “signaling” his subordinates — which is hard to prove — and Trump saying he “hoped” Comey would end the investigation of General Flynn, and then firing him when he didn’t.

Firing Comey didn’t obstruct justice

President Trump stated in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt that he knew firing Comey might lengthen the Russia investigation, but he did it anyways because it was the right thing to do. It was no way an effort to interfere.

  • The firing of former Director Comey did nothing to change the course of the investigation. Even if President Trump had wanted to impede in the case, firing the FBI Director would in no way accomplish that.
  • Attorney General Sessions in his testimony this week stated that firing the FBI Director would in no way affect the investigation as all the same personnel is still in place.

Is this accurate? Yes. The appointment of Mueller as special counsel has made the investigation more potent, not less.

Is this relevant? No. Obstruction of justice is about intent. If he tried to obstruct the investigation, he’s guilty, even if he failed. And he told the Russians in the Oval Office that firing Comey had relieved “great pressure” on him.

Trump is not guilty of collusion

If this leaked account is true, it means the special counsel has struck out on trying to prove collusion, and is shifting to obstruction in an effort save face

  • After months of investigations, there is no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
  • According to Senator Risch, the Senate Committee has gone through thousands of documents and found no evidence of collusion.
  • Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle involved in the investigation have all said there is zero evidence of any collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
  • This apparent pivot by the investigative team shows that they have struck out on trying to prove collusion and are now trying to switch to another baseless charge.

Is this accurate? No. The special counsel is still investigating collusion between Trump campaign staff and Russian officials. The fact that they have not yet found direct evidence of collusion by Trump doesn’t mean that they’re done looking. And investigators don’t investigate other crimes to save face, they investigate other crimes to find one for which they can get evidence for a conviction.

Is this relevant? No. Nixon resigned, not because he ordered the Watergate break-in, but because he got caught trying to cover it up. Bill Clinton was impeached, not for having an affair, but for lying about it. Even if Trump is not guilty of collusion, that doesn’t mean he’s not guilty of obstruction of justice.

The investigation has gone on too long

How much longer is this investigation/fishing expedition going to go on?

Is this accurate? It’s a rhetorical question.

Is this relevant? It’s worth asking, but the investigations of Nixon, Clinton, and Reagan (for Iran-Contra) went on for years. The right answer to this question is “a whole lot longer, until the truth comes out.”

What you can learn from these talking points

What you hear on cable news isn’t argumentation, it’s just arguing. I hate it. I’m interested in facts and logic. I haven’t seen any democratic talking points documents, but I’m doubt they’re any more logical.

In this case, the only relevant question the talking points raise is that it’s arguable whether you can actually convict the president of obstruction of justice, since he’s ultimately in charge of the Justice Department. Even if you think leaks are wrong, Obama and Clinton were guilty of obstruction, Trump didn’t succeed in stopping the FBI investigation, and he didn’t collude with Russia, none of those arguments actually matter to the question of whether an Trump obstructed justice. They’re irrelevant whataboutism.

Next time you argue with anyone — a professor, a friend on Facebook, a spouse — make a pledge not to resort to whataboutism. It’s bad enough for idiots on cable networks. Your principles are better than that.

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  1. Admittedly, I’ve fallen for whataboutisms a few times.

    After this, however, not anymore or at least not as much as before. Appreciate this one.

  2. Strictly as a question of language — I wouldn’t want to talk politics on this website, especially as an Aussie — doesn’t impeachment require the commission of “high crimes and misdemeanors”?

    All the men in the rest of the world were astounded when Clinton was impeached for lying about his sex life, but hey, the guy did lie under oath.

  3. And can the author of these talking points be indicted for crimes against the language? e.g. “continues to be a appalling amount of illegal leaks”, “[i]t was no way an effort to interfere”, “all the same personnel is still in place” and at least one other I noticed but now can’t find.