contributor perspectives

Aug 25, 2016 | 08:00 GMT

11 mins read

The Problem With Judging the Speaker, Not the Statement

Board of Contributors
Philip Bobbitt
Board of Contributors
The Problem With Judging the Speaker, Not the Statement
(SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Contributor Perspectives offer insight, analysis and commentary from Stratfor’s Board of Contributors and guest contributors who are distinguished leaders in their fields of expertise.

The other day the chairman of the U.S. Republican National Committee said simply to an audience, "She lied." Of course everyone knew who he was talking about. He was repeating the charge, which through remorseless repetition has gained traction, that Hillary Clinton cannot be trusted. As the Republican nominee for the presidency put it, "She is a world-class liar." That's quite a thing to say about a person who has dedicated herself so thoroughly to public service and who has, I believe, within her qualities of greatness that can make her a historic president.

Charges of lying bear repeating because it's the repetition that does the work. Former Congressman Dan Burton chaired the principal House committee in the late 1990s investigating the land investments of the Clintons, and allegations that Asian fundraising was linked to the political decisions taken by President Bill Clinton's administration. When Bob Barr was newly elected a congressman in 1994, one of his first acts was to demand the impeachment of the president. In the resolution calling for impeachment, he didn't even bother to list the charges. Of course when the impeachment proceedings finally bore fruit they had nothing to do with Asian fundraising or real estate investments but focused instead on an affair the president had with a White House intern. The campaign was led by Newt Gingrich, Bob Livingston and Denny Hastert, whose personal lives, like Burton's, turned out to be not without blemish.

Charges of lying bear repeating because it's the repetition that does the work.

But it was the relentless repetition of charges, however baseless, that eventually led to a sense on the part of the public that the Clintons simply couldn't be trusted. And the effect of this repetition isn't so much to establish the truth of the allegations but rather to discredit every subsequent statement made by the president or the former secretary of state. That's because we are all subject to this common fallacy: Out of ignorance or sloth, we prefer to judge the speaker rather than the statement; we don't have to educate ourselves about the economic impact of a balanced budget amendment, or the effect of trade agreements on the growth of the economy, or the complexities of a nonproliferation agreement. Instead, we form a general assessment of the person making the claim and by this means evaluate the truth of that claim.

Unfounded Accusations

The latest charges against Mrs. Clinton arise from the investigations of the congressional committee formed to investigate the State Department's reactions to the killings by al Qaeda in Benghazi. Those investigations have now focused on her use of private email servers, a revelation about as relevant to the purpose for which the committee was formed as Monica Lewinsky was relevant to the Whitewater real estate investments. Recently, the chairmen of the House Judiciary Committee and the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform have called for the prosecution of Mrs. Clinton for perjury and making false statements to Congress. The purported basis of these charges is the July 5 statement and July 7 testimony of FBI Director James Comey. These charges have now been thoroughly and effectively eviscerated in a memorandum by former White House Counsel John Dean.

I would be ashamed to have such an assessment made of my own legal work but I will not hold my breath waiting for apologies from the committee chairmen. Dean's conclusion is:

"The charges that Secretary Clinton lied to Congress are baseless. While there may be a few technical errors in her testimony, and there may be information that was discovered by the FBI after she testified there is absolutely no evidence at all that she willfully and knowingly provided false information to Congress. Ironically, there are more false statements in the letter from Chairmen Goodlatte and Chaffetz to the Department of Justice, which are clearly intentional, than the hours upon hours of testimony given by Secretary Clinton."

Nor is there any substance to the charge, made in many quarters, that the Department of Justice has applied a double standard by its refusal to seek an indictment of the former secretary of state. As I understand the facts, Mrs. Clinton's actions in using a private server for handling some of the documents with which she dealt is not remotely close to being "a serious crime under the Espionage Act." The closest precedent of which I am aware is the John Deutch case. You will recall that he was willing to plead guilty to a misdemeanor of improper handling of classified material but was pardoned by President Bill Clinton.

Like Mrs. Clinton, Deutch had put his work materials — he was at the time the Director of Central Intelligence — on his home computer for the sake of convenience, enabling him to work at home or while traveling without carrying paper files. The difference, as I understand it, is that as Deutch acknowledged he was aware that he was transferring classified documents while there is no claim that any of the documents parked on Mrs. Clinton's server were stamped classified when they were originated by, or sent to, her. After all the hours of badgering and the review of countless documents by the FBI and by congressional staffers, the most that has been revealed are three paragraphs marked with a "C" — for Confidential, the lowest category of classification — in documents that the author neglected to stamp as Confidential as required by the regulations and which would have alerted a reader.

There are many other points to be made: that she had no intention of leaking documents to unauthorized persons — the point of the Espionage Act — that she has the authority to declassify materials originating in the State Department or whose declassification is necessary to conduct the business of government as she is directed by the president (derivative declassification without which, as a practical matter, it would be impossible to govern), that even Deutch's prosecution was very controversial and, if pursued, would have only resulted in a misdemeanor. But the bottom line is that — in my opinion — it is simply erroneous to say that the facts in the absurd hectoring visited on her in this matter by Republican members of the House amount to "a serious crime under the Espionage Act." 

Reinforced Through Repetition

This week, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has repeated serious charges that he believes reflect "the vast scope of Hillary Clinton's criminality":

"As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton signed off on a deal allowing Russians to take an increased stake in a company called Uranium One, giving up control of about 20 percent of America's uranium supply to the Russians. Clinton's approval of the deal netted the owners of the uranium company millions of dollars. In exchange for signing off on the deal, some of the former owners of Uranium One gave the Clinton Foundation millions of dollars in donations."

Reading this, or listening to it, you might never know that the Committee on Foreign Investment that approved the sale was composed of members besides Mrs. Clinton, including the attorney general and the secretaries of treasury, defense, homeland security, commerce and energy. Nor would you know that the approval of the sale does not mean that the Russians can remove uranium from the United States, because this would require separate approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission without which uranium cannot be exported from the United States. A reader would not know that despite all the countless hours of investigation, there is no evidence that the secretary of state made any effort to intervene in the decision nor any evidence of an "exchange."

Similarly, Trump made this charge:

"In 2009, Ericsson telecommunications came under U.S. pressure for selling telecom equipment to several oppressive governments — including Sudan, Syria, and Iran. Some of these regimes used those technologies to monitor and control their own people. In June 2011, Hillary Clinton's State Department began adding goods and services to a list that might be covered under expanded sanctions on Iran and other state sponsors of terrorism. During that time, Ericsson sponsored a speech by Bill Clinton, paying him $750,000 — his highest paying speech. In April 2012, the Obama Administration issued an executive order imposing sanctions on telecom sales to Iran and Syria — but those sanctions did not cover Ericsson's work in Iran."

From this, one would scarcely gather that the U.S. government did not want to quash the business Ericsson was doing in Iran prior to Bill Clinton's speech. In fact, President Barack Obama's administration wanted to encourage the use of communications technology such as that which Ericsson provided in order to aid dissident movements and to employ social media to organize the Iranian public against its repressive theocracy. Nor would one glean that the executive order did not govern the sort of technologies sold by Ericsson.

Trump was anxious to disclose that, "Hillary Clinton accepted $58,000 in jewelry from the government of Brunei when she was Secretary of State," without noting that Clinton transferred ownership of the jewelry to the U.S. government as is typically the case with government officials who receive gifts from foreign governments.

Trading Truth for Sincerity

These are not new charges. Nor are the refutations that have been extensively reported by Fortune magazine, the Washington Post and others.

In the same speech, Donald Trump said, "I will never lie to you." He can't mean by this that he will never misinform the public. There are far too many examples of this on the record, including his claims that he opposed the Iraq intervention before the war and opposed the intervention in Libya. What I think he means is, "I will always be sincere. I'll always tell you what I'm really thinking, there'll be no political correctness nonsense."

Why ask if the lawyer testifying before Congress in defense of hydraulic fracturing is making a persuasive case when all you have to know is that he's being paid by the oil industry? Why bother to inquire about what the actual work of the Clinton Foundation is — the millions of people who have been helped by it in the poorest of countries — when all you have to know is that the former president has been using his formidable political skills to raise vast amounts of money?

So the truth or falsity of the claim is submerged in the sincerity of the speaker and the fact that he is, or at least appears to be, patently convinced of the truth of the statements he is making. After making a very successful film, "Selma," which was severely criticized for its deliberate distortions and falsifications, the director was challenged. "I think everyone sees history through their own lens," Ava DuVernay replied, "and I don't begrudge anyone from wanting to see what they want to see. This is what I see…That should be valid. I'm not going to argue history," she said, taking a dramatic pause. "I could, but I won't."

What she doesn't seem to see is that the creation and repetition of such falsehoods also creates a set of expectations on the part of the public that makes them vulnerable to further falsehoods and impervious to their correction. When a CNN anchor corrected Newt Gingrich to say the crime rate in America has dropped, contrary to Trump's declarations, Gingrich replied, "The current view is that liberals have a whole set of statistics that theoretically may be right, but it's not where human beings are." 

Perhaps the magic of technology and the abundance of information have convinced us that our beliefs, including our beliefs about the people we mistrust, are a substitute for truth. Why ask if the lawyer testifying before Congress in defense of hydraulic fracturing is making a persuasive case when all you have to know is that he's being paid by the oil industry? Why bother to inquire about what the actual work of the Clinton Foundation is — the millions of people who have been helped by it in the poorest of countries — when all you have to know is that the former president has been using his formidable political skills to raise vast amounts of money?

Beliefs can change reality, but they can't substitute for it. As late science fiction author Philip K. Dick once wrote, "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."

Note: Watch this space for an upcoming counter-view to that presented here by Dr. Bobbitt.

Philip Bobbitt is a leading constitutional theorist whose interests include international security and the history of military strategy. He currently serves on the faculties of Columbia Law School and the University of Texas, where he is the Herbert Wechsler Professor of Jurisprudence, and Distinguished Senior Lecturer, respectively. He has published eight books. His bestsellers include The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History (2002) and Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-First Century (2008). His most recent book is The Garments of Court and Palace: Machiavelli and the World That He Made (2014).

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