Thursday, March 2, 2017

Attorney General Sessions, the Russians, and the Meaning of Words.

In case you haven't heard, the Washington Post broke the news yesterday that Attorney General Jeff Sessions met with the Russian Ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, at least twice during Trump's successful presidential campaign. This is a problem because of what Sessions said, under oath, during his confirmation hearings.

During those hearings, Sen. Al Franken asked Session how he would respond were he to learn that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign had communications with Russian officials. Sessions responded by insisting that he had no knowledge of any such communications, and then added the following remark: "I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians."

The Washington Post reports the following response from the Sessions-camp:

Officials said Sessions did not consider the conversations relevant to the lawmakers’ questions and did not remember in detail what he discussed with Kislyak.  
"There was absolutely nothing misleading about his answer," said Sarah Isgur Flores, Sessions’s spokeswoman.

The idea seems to be this: Although Sessions said the words, "I did not have communications with the Russians," what he meant by those words was not inconsistent with the fact that he actually did meet with the Russian Ambassador twice, once in private. Although meeting with the Russian ambassador seems to qualify as "communications with the Russians," the claim is that something in the context in which those words were spoken alters their intended meaning.

So let's talk a bit about something that, in critical thinking texts, is dubbed "conversational implication." Sometimes we speak loosely on the assumption that people will understand what we mean based on the broader context within which we are speaking. If the context makes it obvious that I meant something that I didn't say explicitly, then it is "conversationally implied." This means that I can be dishonest without saying anything that is strictly-speaking false, and it means I can be honest even though my words, pulled out of context, are not exactly true as stated.

Suppose, for example, that someone rushes into my office and shouts, "I need a fire extinguisher! Do you know where I can find a fire extinguisher?" Now imagine that I answer, "Go to the stairwell at the end of the hall. If you go down two flights, you'll find one at the base of the stairs." The context here implies that the fire extinguisher I'm directing the desperate person to is the NEAREST fire extinguisher (or at least the nearest one that I know of). If I happen to have a fire extinguisher under my desk, there is reason to accuse me of being misleading even if the words I said were strictly true.

Likewise, a statement might be strictly false because it isn't properly qualified--but the needed qualifications are conversationally implicit, and so we can't accuse the person of dishonesty. If I say, "I didn't drive anywhere near the bank" in order to explain to my wife why I failed to deposit the checks, the fact that I have driven near the bank on countless occasions over the last few years doesn't make me dishonest. The qualifier, "today," is conversationally implied: "I didn't drive anywhere near the bank today." And the fact that I was driving in the same town as my bank, and that by global standards that is darned near to the bank, doesn't make me dishonest either. After all, the context makes it clear that I am using the term "near" in a relative sense--in the sense in which it would be convenient for me to pull in and deposit the checks.

It sounds to me like this is the move that Sessions and his surrogates want to make: Although what he said wasn't strictly true, it was conversationally implied that he was only referring to communications about Trump's campaign.

But this doesn't seem right. I've read the full question that Franken asked, which elicited Sessions' reply (you can find here). There is something that clearly is conversationally implied by the context of Sessions' words, namely that he did not have communications with the Russians during the time of the campaign. Given how long Sessions has been in the Senate, it would be hard to believe the remark if we didn't assume some kind of time constraint like that. But given the focus of Franken's question, and given Sessions' explicit reference to the campaign, the time constraint was conversationally implied. So on that front, we can't accuse Sessions of dishonesty even if we can prove that he has met with Russian officials dozens of times over the years.

Also, the context seems to imply something more substantive that casual communication of the sort one might have at a black tie affair. If Sessions had run into the Russian ambassador at the cocktail bar, and the two had exchanged pleasantries about the weather, that would be a kind of communication with a Russian official. But I think the conversational context makes it clear that something more substantive is at issue.

The problem, of course, is that Sessions met with a Russian official during the campaign, and that at least one of these meetings was a private meeting, not a casual exchange about the weather. And yet what he said was this: "I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians." Given the context offered by Franken's question, I doubt that anyone in the room assumed that this meant, "Although I have had communications with the Russians during the campaign, in fact meeting more than once with the Russian ambassador, we didn't talk about the campaign."

"I did not have communications with the Russians," in ordinary English, tends to carry the implication that one, well, didn't have communications with the Russians--unless there is something clearly indicated by the conversational context that implies otherwise. And there just doesn't seem to be any such something in place here.

Could Sessions have misspoken under the stress of a confirmation hearing? Sure. He could have intended to say, "I did not have any communications with the Russians about the campaign." But if he had spoken correctly, you can bet Franken would have asked some follow-up questions: "Did you, then, communicate with Russian officials during the campaign in some other capacity?" That he didn't ask such follow-up questions is a pretty good sign to me that Franken didn't interpret Sessions' words to be qualified in that way.

In fact, such follow up questions wouldn't make sense given what Sessions in fact said. It is thus a strain of the concept of conversational implication to assume that "about the campaign" was conversationally implied, even though the person Sessions was directly answering clearly failed to catch the implication. I doubt anyone else caught it either. Why would they?

As such, the claim by Sessions' spokesperson, Flores, that there was "nothing misleading" about his statement only succeeds in calling Flores' credibility into question. It was clearly misleading--misleading enough that a natural line of follow-up questions, which Franken would surely have asked had the statement been properly qualified, was not pursued. And we'll never know what that line of questioning might have produced.

None of this means Sessions committed perjury. To establish perjury, one would need to show not only that his words were strictly false but that he intended to mislead. But even if he did not intend to mislead, the words were misleading.

Is it a big deal? We inadvertently say misleading things all the time, because we aren't being careful. Sometimes we assume, wrongly, that something is conversationally implied when it isn't. Misspeaking isn't necessarily a big deal, although it can be pretty serious depending on what it leads people to believe and do. And I think it is important to acknowledge when one's words are misleading, and to take responsibility for the consequences when they are less than trivial.