How Trump Sows Confusion and Doubt

The president avoids outright denials of inconvenient facts, preferring to cast doubt through innuendo and misdirection.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

Why do reporters keep asking President Trump whether he accepts that Russia interfered in the 2016 election? The shortest answer is that he keeps giving interesting answers. During a press conference in Warsaw Thursday, NBC’s Hallie Jackson asked the question once more.

On its face, Trump’s rambling answer was almost incoherent, or at least, self-contradictory. Read closely, however, it illuminates a pattern. When Trump wants to rebut a charge, he seldom flatly denies it. Instead, he generally prefers to sow doubt, skillfully stressing uncertainties to obfuscate and muddy the issue.

In the case of Jackson’s question in Warsaw, Trump he starts off by half-heartedly accepting the premise, then quickly moving to undermine it by injecting the possibility of other actors. Notably, he doesn’t name them, presumably because he has no evidence. Then he finishes with an indisputably true statement—lots of countries interfere in elections—which seems to cast doubt even though it’s actually irrelevant to the question at hand:

I think it was Russia, and I think it could have been other people in other countries. It could have been a lot of people. I said it very simply. I think it could very well have been Russia, but I think it could well have been other countries. I won’t be specific. I think a lot of people interfere. I think it’s been happening for a long time, it’s been happing for many, many years.

Trump’s next move is to divert attention to another supposed culprit: his hated predecessor.

The thing I have to mention is that Barack Obama when he was president found out about this, in terms of if it were Russia, found out about in August. The election was in November. That’s a lot of time he did nothing about it. Why did he do nothing about it? He was told it was Russia by the CIA, as I understood it, it was well reported, and he did nothing about it. They say he choked. I don’t think he choked. I think what happened is he thought Hillary Clinton was going to win the election and he said let’s not do anything about it. Had he thought the other way, he would have done something about it.

This is a rich farrago of truth, misdirection, and hand-waving. He starts off with a valid point: Obama did know about Russian interference, and he was notably slow to act. It’s not quite true that he did nothing about it. Obama scolded Russian President Vladimir Putin (apparently ineffectually) during a sidelines meeting in September, and reportedly also delivered a stern message on October 31. But overall, Trump is right that Obama made few major gestures, and multiple reports have suggested that’s because the president believed Clinton would win and didn’t want to be seen as meddling politically to assist her. Trump sets up Obama “choking” as somehow separate from his faith that Clinton would win, when they are in fact one in the same. Note, however, how Trump once again subtly injects doubt about Russia’s role: “in terms of if it were Russia.”

Strangely, Trump then goes on to acknowledge, in a sideways manner, that the CIA believes “Russia was … meddling pretty strongly with the election.”

He was told in early August by presumably the CIA that Russia was trying to get involved or meddling pretty strongly with the election. He did nothing about it. The reason is he thought Hillary was going to win. If he thought I was going to win, he would have done plenty about it.

Moments later, Trump heads off in a different direction:

Let me just start off by saying, I heard it was 17 agencies. I said, “Boy that’s a lot, do we even have that many intelligence agencies? Let’s check it.” We did some very heavy research. It turned out to be three or four. It wasn’t 17. Many of your compatriots had to change their reporting, and they had to apologize or they had to correct it.

Here’s another mix of fact and fancy. It’s a strange statement for the president of the United States to question whether the government actually has 17 intelligence agencies. Maybe he should pay more attention during briefings. Who did the “heavy research” to investigate that fact? Did it involve Wikipedia? But then Trump lands on a valid point: The solemn intonation that 17 intelligence agencies had agreed that Russia had interfered became a staple of coverage of the election-interference story, when in fact the FBI, CIA, and NSA were the agencies that concluded Russia had interfered. As Trump said, several news organizations issued corrections.

On the one hand, this doesn’t change the substance much—why would anyone expect the Drug Enforcement Administration or National Geospatial Intelligence Agency to weigh in on Russian cyberespionage?—but even though there’s no substantial difference, it’s a chance for Trump to impeach the media, and to weaponize corrections. As Jack Shafer has written, the press (like everyone) sometimes makes errors, but whereas Trump never admits an error, The New York Times prints corrections—and this provides ammo to Trump. This is a cousin to another Trumpian trick. Other parties (intelligence agencies, for example) declare “high confidence” in their judgment but won’t state it as fact, acknowledging the difficulty of absolute certainty, but Trump takes anything other than an absolute statement as an opening to cast further doubt. (This tactic has also been employed very successfully by those who deny anthropogenic climate change.)

For example, Trump goes on:

With that being said, mistakes have been made. I agree. I think it was Russia, but I think it was probably other people and/or countries. And I see nothing wrong with that statement. Nobody really knows. Nobody really knows for sure.

It may be that no one knows for sure, but the consensus is strong. But the president, having sown doubt, now jumps to the conclusion that the answer is unknown (and, he implies, likely unknowable). And finally, Trump gives a history lesson:

I remember when I was sitting back listening about Iraq. Weapons of mass destruction, now everybody was 100 percent sure that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Guess what: That led to one big mess. They were wrong, and it led to a mess.

Here, as with his discussion of Obama’s lethargic response, Trump’s basic premise is right; it’s his conclusions that are dubious. The intelligence work that went into the Iraq war was a catastrophe, though there were doubters in the intelligence community at the time. There have been multiple inquiries into what went wrong, and one takeaway is that the Bush administration was eagerly seeking intelligence that supported its desire to go to war against Saddam Hussein. A prudent president might take from that episode that it’s unwise to approach intelligence as essentially a political tool, but Trump has drawn the opposite conclusion, rejecting any intelligence he finds politically inconvenient, such as the conclusion that Russia was the only major force interfering in the election.

As a handy CNN timeline of Trump’s statements on the matter shows, the president has seldom, and perhaps never, flatly ruled out Russian interference. He’s too wily to offer a flat denial. Instead, he’s found it more effective to systematically inject doubt and then let others do the work.

What motivates Trump’s obfuscation on this particular issue remains obscure. His continued doubt puts him at odds not just with Democrats, and not just with the 2016 intelligence assessment, but also with most Republicans. His stubborn stance is causing him political problems, encouraging questions about why he is so determined to pull punches against Russia, and whether it has anything to do with collusion between his campaign and the Kremlin—something he has fiercely denied, and which Special Counsel Robert Mueller is investigating. Trump is also at odds with his own appointees to major intelligence agencies, his secretary of state, his UN ambassador, and others. For obvious reasons, he prefers to emphasize his disagreements with the media over those disagreements.

There’s a glaring contradiction in Trump’s comments in Warsaw. The president wants to have it both ways: On the one hand, Obama should have acted more strongly to punish Russia; on the other hand, Russia might not even be the culprit. This contradiction is perplexing if one assumes that coherence is the goal. If, however, the goal is to sow doubts, then such a contradiction only aids the cause.