How Trump’s lawyer Marc Kasowitz uses words to create a biased perspective

Photo of Marc Kasowitz by REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

The statement from Marc Kasowitz, Trump’s lawyer, regarding former FBI director James Comey’s testimony yesterday was, basically, “see, there’s nothing there.” Meanwhile, the Washington Post had this headline: “Comey testimony threatens to deepen political crisis engulfing White House.” The difference reveals how what you think depends on which facts and statements you want to concentrate on.

As I did yesterday, I’ll pick apart the statement from Kasowitz and show how both sides might view it.

Does the statement vindicate Trump?

As a good writer should, Kasowitz puts the main point right at the top: that Trump is innocent of wrongdoing. But he puts a thumb on the scale with some weaselly and defensive phrases, adverbs, and verbs (highlighted in bold):

Contrary to numerous false press accounts leading up to today’s hearing, Mr. Comey has now finally confirmed publicly what he repeatedly told the President privately: The President was not under investigation as part of any probe into Russian interference. He also admitted that there is no evidence that a single vote changed as a result of any Russian interference.

Analysis: Like Trump, Kasowitz feels the need to take a swat at the press before speaking. Words like “finally,” “repeatedly,” and “admitted” reflect the emotional response of someone under siege. Strip that away and Kasowitz is repeating two facts: no one is investigating Trump, and no one can prove that the Russians tipped the election.

How a Trump loyalist would see this: The election is legitimate and Trump did nothing wrong.

How a Trump opponent would see this: Trump’s not personally under investigation now (and no credible news source says he is). But the investigation continues. And as for the election, according to all of the agencies in the US Intelligence Community, the Russians attempted to influence the election, hacked the Democratic National Committee, and released their emails. While there’s no way to prove what effect that had short of psychoanalyzing every voter in the country, it clearly qualifies as election meddling.

Did Trump pressure Comey?

Kasowitz cherry-picks statements that indicate that Trump wanted a full investigation, using absolute words (shown here in bold) like “never” and “did not exclude anyone”:

Mr Comey’s testimony also makes clear that the President never sought to impede the investigation into attempted Russian interference in the 2016 election, and in fact, according to Mr. Comey, the President told Mr. Comey “it would be good to find out” in that investigation if there were “some ‘satellite’ associates of his who did something wrong.” And he did not exclude anyone from that statement.

Consistent with that statement, the President never, in form or substance, directed or suggested that Mr. Comey stop investigating anyone, including suggesting that that Mr. Comey “let Flynn go.” As he publicly stated the next day, he did say to Mr. Comey, “General Flynn is a good guy, he has been through a lot” and also “asked how is General Flynn is doing.”

Analysis: Kasowitz has highlighted only the statements that reflect an absence of pressure. He takes these statements out of context. In fact, Comey wrote this:

[Trump] then said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

Is that pressure to give up the investigation? It’s arguable, but you certainly can’t say that it isn’t pressure “in any form or substance.”

How a Trump loyalist would see this: Trump never told Comey to stop investigating General Flynn. Comey is lying about any pressure.

How a Trump opponent would see this: According to Comey, Trump asked him if he wanted to keep his job, then told him he hoped Comey could let the investigation go. Sounds a lot like pressure to me.

Did Trump insist on loyalty from Comey?

Kasowitz says Comey is lying about the request for loyalty.

The President also never told Mr. Comey, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty” in form or substance. Of course, the Office of the President is entitled to expect loyalty from those who are serving in an administration . . .

How a Trump loyalist would see this: It’s “he said, he said.” Comey is mistaken about this.

How a Trump opponent would see this: Why should we accept that most of what Comey says is true, but doubt this single statement? And what a President is supposed to expect from his FBI head is diligent investigation to defend the country from crime and terrorism, not “loyalty” to the president.

Is the real problem government officials who leak?

Of the 573 words in this statement, 249, or 43%, are about leaks. I highlight words intended to create outrage.

[I]t is overwhelmingly clear that there have been and continue to be those in government who are actively attempting to undermine this administration with selective and illegal leaks of classified information and privileged communications. Mr. Comey has now admitted that he is one of these leakers.

Today, Mr. Comey admitted that he unilaterally and surreptitiously made unauthorized disclosures to the press of privileged communications with the President. The leaks of this privileged information began no later than March 2017 when friends of Mr. Comey have stated he disclosed to them the conversations he had with the President during their January 27, 2017 dinner and February 14, 2017 White House meeting.

Today, Mr. Comey admitted that he leaked to friends his purported memos of these privileged conversations, one of which he testified was classified. He also testified that immediately after he was terminated he authorized his friends to leak the contents of these memos to the press in order to “prompt the appointment of a special counsel.”

Although Mr. Comey testified he only leaked the memos in response to a tweet, the public record reveals that the New York Times was quoting from these memos the day before the referenced tweet, which belies Mr. Comey’s excuse for this unauthorized disclosure of privileged information and appears to entirely retaliatory. We will leave it the appropriate authorities to determine whether this leaks should be investigated along with all those others being investigated. .

Analysis: This short statement uses the word “leak” eight times. Leak is an emotionally loaded word. Kasowitz uses other loaded words like “undermine” “surreptitiously,” “purported,” “unauthorized,” and “retaliatory.” This is an attempt to impugn Comey’s unemotional and highly believable testimony and statements. By repeating the emotional content in so many ways, Kasowitz appears biased (and of course he is, since he’s Trump’s lawyer.) Even if we agree that Comey leaked information (and he says he did), that has little to do with whether the president was inappropriately pressuring him. It does speak to Trump’s justification for firing him, but Trump has never cited leaks as a reason for that before.

Also, The New York Times disputes Kasowitz’ description of the timeline, and says that the leaked memo appeared only after the tweet, not before as Kasowitz stated.

How a Trump loyalist would see this: Comey and other are leaking information and collaborating with the press to impugn the president.

How a Trump opponent would see this: Leaks are the only way those in the government can draw attention to wrongdoing. The focus on leaks is an attempt to misdirect out attention away from what’s happening.

Why so many typos?

The statement is sloppy. Here are some of the mistakes, which I’ve italicized:

I am Mark Kasowitz, Predisent Trump’s personal lawyer.

Director [of National Intelligence”] Coates said the same thing. [His name is actually Dan Coats, not Coates.]

. . . disclosure of privileged information and appears to entirely retaliatory

We will leave it the appropriate authorities to determine whether this leaks should be investigated

As he said yesterday, the President feels completely vindicated and is eager to continue moving forward with his agenda without thus public cloud removed. [Presumably, he means, “with this” cloud removed. Strangely, this last sentence is in some accounts, like the Boston Globe’s, but not in others. It may have been part of Kasowitz spoken statement, but not the written statement.]

While I’m not without a few typos of my own, this isn’t about me. You’d expect a legal team to proofread a statement like this before releasing it.

How a Trump loyalist would see this: Who gives a damn about typos.

How a Trump opponent would see this: Everything these people do is sloppy.

Let’s have a vigorous discussion, be but aware of bias

Kasowitz is Trump’s lawyer. He’s supposed to be biased. That means you can learn from him, but not trust him to present a balanced view.

There are lots of facts here. Kasowitz presents some and ignores others. You shouldn’t.

Go back to the original documents and testimony. That’s where the truth is. And we’re not going to learn the full truth for a long time, since this investigation is not nearly over. Kasowitz is completely wrong about one thing: this testimony hasn’t vindicated anyone.

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  1. How is it that any piece like Kasowitz’s has misspellings and grammatical errors. Does he not have a colleague, executive assistant, or secretary to proofread his words? And yes, accuracy is important, all the more so in an important case like this.

  2. I thank you, Josh Bernoff, for doing these close readings of the ways people send their loaded messages like stealth bombs. As a sociolinguist, communications and cultural analyst, I agree that this way of understanding political speech, and everyday conversation is extremely important. Sadly,I don’t see how the opposition is counteracting these tactics of the Republicans.