The latest swirl of reports out of Washington has more lessons for us news consumers — including paying attention to what exactly what is and isn’t said.
A number of commentators have pointed to a comment by an Obama spokesman about President Trump’s claim his Trump Tower offices were bugged. It is a “denial,” but some pundits have noted what it refrains from denying. Let’s take a look.
According to news reports, Kevin Lewis, a spokesman for former President Obama, said in a statement:
“A cardinal rule of the Obama Administration was that no White House official ever interfered with any independent investigation led by the Department of Justice. As part of that practice, neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen. Any suggestion otherwise is simply false.”
First of all, it’s telling that a “spokesman” is saying this. Remember the “Godfather” books and movies. The head of the mob family has a consigliere, a counselor to whom the Godfather gives all orders. So the Godfather never orders anything, only the consigliere does. And the consigliere can be easily disposed of.
A spokesman can say anything. If he is lying, well, who cares? If the heat gets turned up, that person can be fired. The Godfather has uttered no lies.
So what does Lewis’ statement say?
- “A cardinal rule.” But of course even cardinal rules can be broken.
- “No White House official.” However, a president reigns over a vast army of minions ready to do his bidding. They don’t have to be “White House” officials. They could be in any one of the executive agencies or departments. They could be senators or members of Congress, or top aides acting as go-betweens. They could be powerful figures outside of government altogether.
- “any independent investigation led by the Department of Justice.” But, in this murky story, what if the investigation is being “led” by some other agency?
- “neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance ….” Ah, but a powerful official never has to order anything. A hint or suggestion will do, as history shows. When English King Henry II, offended by Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket, muttered, “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?”, four knights took this as a command, and cut down Becket in church. A clever president can make his will known very subtly.
- “surveillance on any U.S. citizen.” It appears, however, from news reports that the purported tapping was aimed at Trump businesses and associates, not “an individual.” Of course, any problems with Trump businesses and officials reflect on Trump.
So what doesn’t the statement say? It isn’t an on-camera statement from Barack Obama himself, saying, “No member of my administration, no federal employees, no one in or affiliated with my campaign organization or political party, none of my confidantes or associates, past or present, was in any way was connected to any possible surveillance at Trump Tower or any Trump organization, either corporate or political.”
These comments aren’t about the controversy itself; they are just another look at how carefully we news consumers must parse every word an official says or writes.