Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, appeared on three Sunday morning shows last weekend to respond to the news of repeated connections between Donald Trump affiliates and Russian agents during the presidential campaign.
A close inspection of Priebus’s words, however, shows that he was not denying all that much. What’s more, looking at the transcripts (of Face the Nation, Fox News Sunday and Meet the Press) illuminates the ways in which the hosts unintentionally allow their guests to use rhetorical strategies that leave the audience uninformed.
1. In all three shows, Priebus falsely states that The New York Times story reported there were “constant” contacts between Trump affiliates and Russians. The NYT story said only “repeated contacts.”
2. Priebus then repudiates the NYT story: He says, based on what anonymous intelligence officials tell him, the story is “total baloney,” “complete garbage” and “grossly overstated.”
De-coding: 1. Technically, all Priebus has denied is that there were “constant contacts,” which is (a) not what the NYT asserted and (b) not really repudiating much of anything (it just rejects that the contacts with Russians were constant). Ask yourself: Why does Priebus repeatedly set up the foil as “constant contacts”?
De-coding: 2. Priebus says the NYT account is “grossly overstated,” which suggests some of it may be correct. None of the Sunday news hosts pressed Priebus about what exactly is overstated—or “total garbage” or “complete baloney.” They allowed him to issue blanket denials.
[As an aside: how can something be both (1) “complete garbage” and at the same time (2) “grossly overstated”? Either it is complete garbage or it is exaggerated—it cannot be both.]
3. Priebus also says multiple times that there is “there’s nothing to The New York Times story.” That, however, might just refer to the implication one draws from the story—e.g., whether there was any collusion with the Russians on their cyber influence campaign. But, the NYT story itself clearly acknowledged: “The officials interviewed in recent weeks said that, so far, they had seen no evidence of such cooperation.”
4. We are not assisted by some of the Sunday news hosts’ opening questions.
a) Chuck Todd somewhat garbled his first question on the topic, so technically it is not clear to what exactly Priebus is saying “no”:
CHUCK TODD: Okay. I want to go to the press conference on the issue of Russia. The president never seemed to answer the question that was asked three or four times there, which is, “Did anybody— Does he know for sure that anybody on his campaign, does he, can he say definitively that nobody in his campaign, nobody that he’s been associated with, had any contacts with any Russian agents?”
REINCE PRIEBUS: No. First of all, the answer is no. And we don’t know of any contacts with Russian agents….
b) Chris Wallace makes the mistake of not simply asking whether there were contacts, but whether it involved “collusion in the campaign”:
CHRIS WALLACE: Reince, I get the fact that you don’t like — I get the fact that you don’t like some stories. First of all, you made some news there at the top and I want to a follow up on that.
You say, because you’ve said before, you weren’t part of the campaign, so you cannot speak to that. You say that the intelligence community says that there were no contacts between anyone in the Trump campaign, any associate of Mr. Trump and anybody involved as a Russian agent as to the campaign and collusion in the campaign with Russia? Is that what you’re saying?
PRIEBUS: Yes, they’ve told me — absolutely. They have made it very clear that that story in The New York Times is complete garbage. And, quite frankly, they use different words than that, OK?
5. Priebus’s saying “we don’t know of any contacts with Russian agents” is similar to the denials of Trump campaign affiliates in the NYT story. Think of it this way: The first line of defense is that there were no such contacts. The second line of defense is that Trump and other senior campaign officials were not aware of contacts and part of that might mean, yes, they knew they were speaking to Russians, but, no, they did not know these people were Russian intelligence agents.
6. It is hard to reconcile statements about the lack of ANY contacts whatsoever when items like this are in the public record: the Russian Ambassador to the U.S. was “seated in the front row of then-GOP candidate Trump’s first major foreign policy speech in April”; Carter Page, who Mr. Trump personally told The Washington Post was in his campaign’s inner circle of foreign policy advisors, took a trip to Russia in July before he had to resign after news reports of a U.S. intelligence probe into his Russian connections.
Those public facts are part of the reason why I think the Trump team will say they meant something different when they said they didn’t “know of any contacts with Russian agents.”
7. It is curious that Priebus refused to name anyone in the FBI who gave him the purported assurances and the clearance for him to speak about a reportedly ongoing investigation. It’s understandable why an FBI official may want to remain anonymous in providing information damaging to his or her administration (that’s the world in which whistleblowers live); it’s less explicable why an official would need to remain anonymous in Priebus’s case especially after giving the chief of staff clearance to discuss the matter.
It is also curious that the FBI would give clearance to discuss a pending investigation.
8. We do not know what Priebus asked the FBI official: It could have gone like this:
Priebus: Just answer these specific questions with a Yes or No. Okay?
Priebus: Does your information tell you there were constant contacts between Russian agents and members of the Trump campaign?
Priebus: Can you make me aware of information from ongoing investigations about any contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence agents?”
Priebus: If I told you The New York Times reported that members of the Trump campaign knew they were constantly in contact with Russian agents, would you agree with me that is complete garbage or at least grossly exaggerated?
Notably, that hypothetical conversation assumes that Priebus stuck very closely in his public remarks to what his FBI official told him. Given Priebus and the administration’s willingness to lie, we have reason to doubt he adequately represented what he was told.
9. Finally, Priebus mentioned only the NYT, avoiding the fact that CNN that same evening published a very similar story relying on its own intelligence sources and a few days later Reuters reported “people who spoke to Reuters also corroborated a Tuesday New York Times report that Americans with ties to Trump or his campaign had repeated contacts with current and former Russian intelligence officers before the November election.”
For their part, none of the news show hosts pointed out to Priebus that the Times was supported by these other major news outlets.
Ryan Goodman is co-editor-in-chief of Just Security and the Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law. He served as special counsel to the general counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-16).