Four Defenses of Trump's Dissembling on Russia

Supporters of the president explain why they stand by him—despite the apparent contradictions between his own denials and other accounts.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

When President Trump spoke about Russia in a press conference shortly after taking office, he dismissed the notion that his campaign had ties to the country as fake news, declaring, “I have nothing to do with Russia. To the best of my knowledge, no person that I deal with does.” That was blatantly untrue, I pointed out last week, citing evidence unearthed by Robert Mueller’s FBI investigation as well as Russia ties known to the public even at the time of the briefing.

My article concluded by asking his remaining supporters why they don’t care about the president’s dishonesty on this subject. Today, I’ll engage with some of their answers. Below are emails from four people who were kind enough to correspond, each with a distinct take. All appear to be heavy news consumers, not cloistered partisans in a right-wing echo chamber; at a minimum, they had made it to the end of my article, which set forth what Trump said beside a detailed account of why it wasn’t true. I withheld their last names to protect their privacy, and tried to address each of their arguments after giving them their say.

Here they are in their own words.

What About Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama?

For a reader named Paul, the president’s behavior has been better than that of Democrats:

You base your article on the assumption that the president knew all about his people’s contacts and associations at the time he was running. Isn’t it likely that he didn’t? Who knows everything that everyone around them is or has done? On the the other hand, we now have PROOF that the Clintons stacked the election against Bernie Sanders and the Obama administration knew about Russian interference during their time in office and did nothing! Why don’t you write about that, or are your bosses keeping you muzzled like a good dog??

For the record, I have extraordinary freedom to choose what I write about; relatedly, it is my understanding that good dogs are typically free to go without muzzles.

Blame It on the CIA

A reader named Daniel posits a conspiracy theory involving a federal intelligence agency:

Wikileaks a few months ago released some VERY damaging information on the CIA. The CIA is a rogue operation that meddles in foreign governments, including the U.S. In those documents, it stated that the CIA has the capability to execute covert operations under the guise of an enemy. In other words, they could hack DNC e-mails in Russian clothing. It’s the equivalent of framing a man for a murder that he did not commit by planting overwhelming evidence.

Of course, this doesn’t support the agenda being pushed, so no mention or investigation into the CIA despite its long and sketchy history of getting involved in politics has been done to date. So, now we have Mueller and his investigation to prove something that never happened. This is actually quite easy in the American legal system.  Padapholus, an unpaid volunteer in his 20s that was trying to make a name for himself boasted about Russian ties. Nothing was acted upon.

End of story.

Trump likely barely even knew who the kid was, having met him once while running a campaign that involved constant interactions with thousands of people on a weekly basis. Additionally, Padapholus’ only crime was lying to the FBI––a crime in and of itself that is absolutely absurd as it infringes upon free speech––not colluding with Russia, not accepting a bribe from a foreign government, etc. For all we know, Padapholus is simply telling Mueller what he wants to hear to avoid jail time.

If you want to know why Trump still has the backing of his supporters, it’s because of folks like you who are constantly trying to create controversy where there is none. Trump’s quoted words in your article were honest as far as he could recall without taking 10 minutes to gather his thoughts, and that’s good enough for all but his detractors.  

So What If Trump Talked to Russia?

A reader named William writes:

Get some sleep. Relax. Stop screaming at the sky. Trump and his team did not overturn the election in order to become President. Trump won election fair and square. Suck it up and stop having a tantrum. Getting past all the clever word play, butt-hurt nonsense you guys spout day in and day out, here's how it works … Let’s say Trump and his team talked every day, 24/7 with Russians—or anyone for that matter—seeking any and all scandalous info that could be gathered and have distributed into the US news cycle to destroy Hillary and the DNC … let’s just pretend that’s the case …  SO WHAT? Hillary, Podesta, the entire DNC, FBI and others are openly admitting they funded and colluded to create the "tabloidesque" Trump dossier in and effort to destroy his chances of being elected, yes?


Now, you and your liberal buddies will no doubt claim Clinton was a hero trying to defend democracy, apple pie, our ability to exist another day … but there is no difference in the effort whatsoever. Here’s the “inconvenient truth” for you … Unless anybody can first prove counted votes were fraudulent, then prove that fraud was a result of voting machines being infiltrated by Russian tech-hacking prompted and assisted by Trump and his campaign … NO LAWS BROKEN.

Unfortunately for Trump haters … Votes were real. Count was accurate. Trump is President. Hillary was a lousy candidate. Got beat by another lousy candidate that was only slightly less lousy than she is. Had Bernie and Biden been given a fair shot, you probably wouldn’t have Trump in office today. But we all know how that was handled—again, totally acceptable for American voters to be disenfranchised in that REAL situation right? Hillary HAD to be the candidate for the world to continue spinning another day. If the only thing that has come from all of this is the overdue revelation of blatant corruption and hypocrisy where American politics and media is concerned, it’s been well worth it.  On that front, you can take pride in showing us all how you really tick. Move on. You folks are seriously damaging your already fragile credibility every day you push these stupid arguments. Playdough is cheap. Your reputation isn’t.

At least, not yet. Food for thought.

For the record, contrary to William’s assumptions, I am not a Hillary Clinton fan; I’ve repeatedly criticized her dismal foreign-policy record and the unseemly conflicts of interest created by her and her husband, and I warned Democrats that she was unsuited to be their nominee during the 2016 election.

Take Trump Seriously, Not Literally

A New York City attorney named James writes:

I couldn’t bring myself to vote for Trump, but I ended up being happy that he was elected and I’ve spent a lot of time since the election trying to understand his appeal. I have two answers to your question, one specific and one general.

(1) No doubt, Trump did not give a literally truthful response to the reporter’s question about Russian contacts. Instead, he answered a different question, which was, “Have you colluded with Russia in the hacking of the Clinton and DNC emails, or in their subsequent release?” If he didn’t collude with Russia, then any contacts his staff may have had with Russians wouldn’t matter. Trump probably understood that any detailed question about Russia was really a general question about collusion, so he just cut to the chase and denied collusion. He could have been more detailed about his campaign’s Russian contacts, but he wasn’t. Instead, he responded to the question, “Is there anything important we should know about Russia and collusion?” with “No. I didn’t collude and your line of questioning, which presumes the possibility of collusion, is not productive.”

2) I’m almost positive you’ve already thought something like “What you’ve described is neither admirable behavior nor in line with generally understood conceptions of honesty.” I agree. But lies are bad because they deceive people, not because they fail to conform to a technical conception of truth. Trump didn’t say no one had Russia contacts; he said Russia wasn’t important. No one listening understood him to mean anything else. Did you?

It may help to think of Trump’s public comments like Yelp restaurant reviews. I read them, and rely on them, not because I “trust” the reviewers and depend on the “truth” of their reviews, but because I have a reliable understanding of how Yelp reviews tend to correspond with reality. In the same way, I never rely on Trump to tell the literal truth, but I’ve found that the truth I can assemble from his comments is pretty reliable. To put it another way, I have not yet been deceived by Trump: He hasn’t said anything that I’ve initially believed which has turned out false. Which is more than I can say about Bill Clinton and his sexual relations with that woman, or George W. and his Nigerian yellowcake, or Barack Obama about keeping your doctor …

So ultimately, I don’t care if Trump lies because everybody lies, and anyway Trump is more predictably dishonest than most politicians and thus more reliable as a source of truth than most politicians. Not ideal, but Trump isn’t the first liar in politics. He’s just the first to not be embarrassed about it.

I’m grateful that these Trump fans took the time to correspond. I hope they’ll consider a few points in response.

Paul, I don’t object to anyone reporting on Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. If new truths reflect poorly on their characters or legacies, so be it. But as someone who covered them critically as long as they held power, I insist that it is absolutely appropriate for most of the political press to focus on the people who are exercising power in the U.S. government right now. Trump fans who cast aspersions on that project do needless harm to civic life. Backward-looking what-aboutism renders Americans unable to hold today’s leaders accountable.

To your charge that I assume “the president knew all about his people’s contacts and associations at the time he was running,” that isn’t quite my position. I presume that Trump knew about George Papadopoulos’s communications with Russia because, at a small-group meeting of advisers that Trump attended, Papadopoulos explicitly offered to use his new Russian ties and recent communications in order to set up a meeting with Vladimir Putin. I do not presume that Trump knew of every instance when his contacts and associates interacted with Russians tied to the Kremlin. There were so many occasions.

But doesn’t it stand to reason that Trump knew, by February 2017, about some of those contacts? After all, he spent the entire 2016 campaign with Russia and his campaign’s relationship to the country as a major point of controversy. And we’re to believe that, all the while, he never heard about the Russia contacts of Jeff Sessions or Donald Trump Jr. or Jared Kushner or Mike Flynn or Carter Page or Michael Cohen? It isn’t that I assume Trump knew what everyone around him was doing; but surely he knew what at least someone was doing!

Now, say I’m wrong. Suppose that Trump was utterly unaware of all of their contacts with Russia. Wouldn’t it then stand to reason that Trump is not in a position to credibly affirm or deny whether or not members of his campaign colluded? If he had no idea what they were up to, he should stop issuing denials about his campaign.

Daniel, doesn’t it seem a bit uncharitable to accuse me of “creating trouble where there is none” for opining on an ongoing FBI investigation into the president while at the same time alleging an undocumented and far-reaching CIA conspiracy?

If what you allege is true, consider this. Donald Trump began praising the CIA almost immediately after taking office; and he sought to lift restrictions on the CIA’s ability to kill people without due process using drones. If the CIA hacked his Democratic opponent during the last election, then pinned it on a foreign country, failing to fess up even as Congress and the FBI began investigating, and if Trump reacted by praising the CIA and giving them more power to kill people, then shouldn’t you be holding Trump in extremely low regard rather than describing yourself as a supporter?

Of course, even if the CIA was behind the DNC hack, there would still be the matter of Russia dispatching an operative to meet with Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner; creating fake social-media accounts to interact with American voters; and purchasing targeted Facebook advertisements to influence the election. So it would remain important to study both Russia’s tactics and whether or not they ever involved collusion with Trump, his kids, or his campaign.

William, Robert Mueller is not investigating Trump and his associates because he believes it would be against the law if they merely sought dirt on Hillary Clinton, whether from the Russian government or elsewhere.

But it might violate the law if Trump or his campaign colluded with the Russians to hack the DNC’s emails; or coordinated with the Russians about when to release the emails; or helped Russians with voter information to better target anti-Clinton Facebook ads; or agreed to do future favors that would advance Russian interests if the Kremlin helped their efforts to beat Clinton in 2016.

Perhaps evidence proving one of those transgressions will emerge; perhaps not. But even if the Trump and his team did not collude at all, it remains the case that they have repeatedly lied about their interactions with the Russians in ways that have thwarted the ongoing effort to understand Russia’s role in the election. That probe is important regardless of whether Trump broke the law. And the press ought to raise a ruckus whenever any president or any member of his team misleads the public, not merely when their untruths are also unlawful.

And finally, James. Yours is as clever a rationalization as I’ve yet seen for supporting an untruthful president, but it is rife with questionable assumptions. First, as earlier correspondents illustrate, there are real costs to Trump’s approach. A non-trivial number of his partisans are not presuming the literal untruth of his words; rather, they are resolving the cognitive dissonance that comes with supporting a liar by conjuring sweeping conspiracy theories involving the CIA, or by regarding everything they read in the press as fake news, or by presuming that any critic of Trump must just be a deranged Clinton partisan.

You may be able to reverse-engineer an accurate picture of the world from Trump’s words, but tune in to Sean Hannity for a week and tell me that he and his millions of viewers are assembling from Trump’s words a reliable picture of reality. Millions of Americans being misled seems like a mighty high cost to bear for the benefit of a president whose lies you, personally, can parse with comparative ease.

I’d have seen through Trump University ads much more easily than a less-obvious scam at a more reputable university. But I have not thereby concluded that the Trump University people should be put in charge of higher education in America.

And with all due respect, I wonder if the view of the world you’re reverse-engineering from Trump’s words is as accurate as you believe it to be. We do not yet know whether or not he colluded with Russia during the 2016 campaign. Your analysis begs that question; it may be that you are wrong.

And if you’re right?

Your approach still falls short insofar as you assume that Trump campaign contacts with Kremlin-connected Russians only matters if Trump colluded with them.

That isn’t so for two reasons:

  1. Imagine Trump did not collude, but a member of his campaign did without his knowledge. That would make Trump’s statement that no one on his campaign had anything to do with Russia consequentially, if unwittingly, misleading. It would lead us astray about something that did turn out to be important. Put another way, Trump lacks the information to be the ultimate adjudicator of which lies matter and which are irrelevant.
  2. And as I keep stressing, even if no one on Trump’s campaign colluded, the public still ought to understand Russia’s efforts to influence the election. Congress and the FBI both embarked on duly constituted efforts to figure that out. And getting to the truth is impossible without knowing about Russian efforts to contact, meet with, and lobby people in Trump’s orbit, even if none of them ultimately chose to collude with Russian operatives.

I agree with you that “Trump is more predictably dishonest than most politicians.” But it does not follow that he is “thus more reliable as a source of truth.” We know what Trump says often isn’t so; we don’t know what is so.

The whole truth has not yet outed.