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How “not” to respond to a “gotcha” question, Trump-Putin Summit Edition

How “not” to respond to a “gotcha” question, Trump-Putin Summit Edition

Process, not content

When I was studying interpersonal communication and how to track an argument or any other verbal exchange, one thing that was very much emphasized was the difference between content and process.

Content is just what it sounds like: the subject matter about which two people (let’s say, a married couple) are talking. “Did you do the dishes last night?” Process is everything else—for example, the emotion with which something is said, the type of vocabulary used, tone, repetition, body language, and the unspoken subtext (which can include a covert or overt goal of the speaker).

Once you understand the distinction between content and process, you can often notice the difference.

For example, if you go back and look at the transcript of the press conference in Helsinki after the Trump-Putin talks, you’ll see that most of Trump’s more criticized remarks were made in the context of answering questions rather than during his prepared statements. And some of those questions were “gotcha” questions. It’s hard not to fall into a trap if a person responds to a “gotcha” question with a content answer rather than a process one.

Let me illustrate. Here’s one exchange I’m referring to, in which the following question was asked of Trump:

Just now, President Putin denied having anything to do with the election interference in 2016. Every U.S. intelligence agency has concluded that Russia did.

What — who — my first question for you, sir, is who do you believe?

Trump had the following choices in terms of a content response:

(1) I believe our intelligence. In other words, Putin’s lying—and of course Putin was standing right there and the eyes of the world were on them both, so whatever negotiations and rapport that might have been established at their previous meeting would have probably been undone by a statement like that from Trump

(2) I believe Putin. In other words, our intelligence is lying, which would create another firestorm if he’d said it.

(3) I’m somewhere in-between. Trump actually chose door #3, which seemed safest. He answered:

…I’ve been asking…for months…Where is the server? I want to know where is the server and what is the server saying?

With that being said, all I can do is ask the question. My people came to me, Dan Coates came to me and some others, they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia.

I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be [NOTE: Trump later said he’d meant to say “wouldn’t be.”] But I really do want to see the server.

But I have — I have confidence in both parties. I — I really believe that this will probably go on for a while, but I don’t think it can go on without finding out what happened to the server…

So I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.

And what he did is an incredible offer. He offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators with respect to the 12 people.

But as you probably know, this response of Trump’s resulted in an enormous hue and cry, and it pleased just about no one. It gave an opening to many people to declare that Trump was saying that he believes Putin over our intelligence, although he actually didn’t say that. But it was a reply from Trump that was neither fish nor fowl, and it was somewhat confusing as well.

I believe that a better approach would have been a process response rather than any sort of content response at all. Now don’t get me wrong—I actually think that any answer Trump could have given would have drawn harsh criticism; as I said, the question itself was a trap. And just about everything Trump does draws harsh criticism from the many people opposed to him. So what I’m about to suggest would have drawn criticism too. But I believe it would have drawn criticism from fewer people, and given them the least anti-Trump ammunition possible under the circumstances.

Something like this sort of response is what I’m talking about:

We’re in Helsinki, we just had a conference between the heads of state of Russia and the US, and we talked about all kinds of extremely important and substantive issues which I mentioned in the address I just gave. But you’d like to get me to be accusatory towards Russia right now, or accusatory towards US intelligence agencies right now, and I won’t do either thing. I won’t play that game, although you’d like me to. I’m going to focus on the task at hand, and I’d like you to do that, too.

In Trump’s statements today, he not only explained that he had actually meant “wouldn’t,” but he added that “he accepts the American intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the election, but he denied that his campaign had colluded in the effort.” This seems to be an effort to choose #1 of those three choices of content response rather than #3.

As Roger Simon wrote back in May:

Trump…[is] his own one-man good cop/bad cop, alternately vilifying and coaxing, even buttering up, his adversaries, often at what appears to be a dizzying pace. The press is ever eager to attack him for this (as they are for everything else), but as of now, his technique seems to be working.

We’ll see if it works with Putin.

[Neo-neocon is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.]


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for me it’s simple: if the #MFM and the #Nevercuckers are *OUTRAGED* about something, i just figure it’s BS…

and, when it disappears when the next *OUTRAGE* erupts, i know i was right.

    notamemberofanyorganizedpolicital in reply to redc1c4. | July 18, 2018 at 5:37 pm

    “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”

    ― Winston S. Churchill

    Being it’s not gonna be used, the democrat media can stick Elon Musk’s Thai rescue submarine where the sun don’t shine.

    Who gives a d’rat’s ass what they say about anything?

    Let’s just leave them behind.


    “Golf, what does it do for you?” – CBS
    CBS’s Harry Smith opened an interview with Obama during his first year in office by mocking the notion that liberal reporters could be biased and then concluded it by asking the leader of the free world about golf. “Golf, what does it do for you?” the brave reporter asked.

    “I’m wondering if you think that [Republican presidential candidates are] uninformed, out of touch, or irresponsible?” –
    CNN reporters have been especially indignant that conservative media outlets are being called on at White House press conferences. But the outlet’s journalists weren’t always so tough on the White House. In November 2011, CNN’s Dan Lothian spoke truth to power by asking then-President Obama if he thought Republican presidential candidates Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain were “uninformed, out of touch, or irresponsible?“

    “Do you have a vindictive streak?” -NBC
    NBC “Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt, who moderated one of the 2016 presidential debates, held Obama’s feet to the fire in one of his last interviews as president with questions like: “Do you have a vindictive streak?”

    What has “Enchanted you the most from serving in this office?” – The New York Times
    Early on in Obama’s presidency, New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny — with a straight face — asked Obama about what most “enchanted” him in his first 100 days in office.
    Zeleny is now CNN’s senior White House correspondent.

    “In this fatherless world, where did you learn to love?” – CBS
    In one of the harder-hitting questions of all time, CBS reporter Harry Smith asked Obama about the way he acquired feelings. “In this fatherless world, where did you learn to love?” Smith asked.

    “What hard things do you want to tackle at this point?” – CNN
    CNN’s Jim Acosta, who has been especially upset about conservative media access to the White House, held Obama’s feet to the fire by noting, “it seems that you’ve built up some political capital for the remaining months of your presidency,” before asking: “What hard things do you want to tackle at this point?”

    “Are you ready to call yourself the ‘comeback kid’?” – Reuters
    Reuters’s Caren Bohan gushed over Obama at a 2010 press conference, saying he “racked up a lot of wins in the last few weeks that a lot of people thought would be difficult to come by” before asking: “Are you ready to call yourself the ‘comeback kid’?

    “You definitely have some impressive accomplishments….And more than a lot of presidents who manage to get reelected. My question is, is it enough?” – CBS
    CBS’s Steve Kroft was mocked in 2011 when he spent an interview with Obama on “60 Minutes” lobbing softball question after softball question, including this remarkable exchange:
    KROFT: You definitely have some impressive accomplishments.
    OBAMA: Thank you, Steve.
    KROFT: No, you do. And more than a lot of presidents who manage to get reelected. My question is, is it enough? Why do you think you deserve to be reelected?

    The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf called the interview “a typical example of a broadcast journalist failing to hold a powerful politician accountable.”

    “Have you given up on the Republicans?” – CBS
    Not to be content with praising the interviewee’s accomplishments, Kroft went on to ask the president whether he had “given up” on the GOP. “Have you given up on the Republicans?” Kroft asked.
    “Have you stopped reaching out to them? Are you just out there now trying to get your message across?”

    “Tell me, what do you consider your major accomplishments?” – CBS (Again)
    After buttering Obama up with soft questions about his golf game and whether he had given up on Republicans, Kroft finally went in for the kill. “Tell me, what do you consider your major accomplishments?” he asked. The Washington Free Beacon compiled some of Kroft’s most openly affectionate moments towards Obama.

    “[W]hat do you think Republicans will be sipping and saying next year?” – CNN
    In the same press conference where Obama was asked if he was the “comeback kid,” CNN’s Dan Lothian asked the president what he thought “Republicans will be sipping and saying next year?”

    “How do you avoid the dangers of being too cocky?” – CNBC
    CNBC’s John Harwood, whose closeness with the Clinton campaign was exposed by WikiLeaks last year, found it necessary to ask the president in 2009 how he avoids “being too cocky.” “How confident are you that your plan is going to work, and how do you avoid the dangers of being too cocky?” Harwood asked.

    “How does your golf game hold up next to Tiger’s?” – ABC
    In 2013, Obama was finally pressed on the issue that matters most: his golf game. “How does your golf game hold up next to Tiger’s?” asked Dan Ashley, a reporter at ABC News’s San Francisco affiliate.

    At one point during the nearly-eight minute segment, the CBS This Morning co-host held up a photograph from the 2009 inaugural balls. She gushed, “I just happen to have this picture here….What were you two thinking? One word? It’s one of my favorite pictures of the Obama administration.”

    Highlighting a film about the 1989 first date between Barack and Michelle Obama, King enthused, “When I think about the Obamas, even your dates make national news. They become news stories.”

    Back in 2009, Matt Lauer gushed to Obama, gushing, “Has there been any surprise in terms about life in the White House? Is there something at the White House that you didn’t think they had or doesn’t have that you thought they did have?”

    The enamored Today host continued, “…Not only did you just become president, obviously that carries a certain amount of fame with it. But — but you have achieved a — a certain rock-star status outside of that.”

    RobM in reply to redc1c4. | July 19, 2018 at 1:20 am

    This, a thousand times this. The media and DC lost their collective minds… for 24 hours. That was Monday. It’s Wednesday. By Friday, either they are back to SCOTUS for the weekend shows, Stormy D., kids deported while parents raped by ICE, oh, look how Trump golfed at his own course!… etc.

    Daily outrage machine. It ruins a lot of people. Pres. Trump is using their machine against them… like a boss. The DC crowd are clutching their pearls every single night… and at DC parties on weekends… they can’t believe it. Their BS games and narrative shaping aren’t working… and haven’t worked for 2 years now. It’s glorious.

    cucho in reply to redc1c4. | July 19, 2018 at 7:57 am

    They’re already concoting the next phony outrage. The good thing about all this is that it showed the NeverTrump crew for what they really are. Nothing but scvmbags.

    neanderthal in reply to redc1c4. | July 19, 2018 at 4:51 pm

    The reporter actually asked Trump in the second part of his question if he would denounce President Putin in front of the world.

    I think the best response would have been to push back against the question, and the logical place to start would be to point out that a foreign policy summit is no place for a denunciations of the person you’re negotiating with.

    Then say that the topic was discussed privately, though not entirely resolved.

    But I’m under no delusion that such a response would have satisfied the critics. They really wanted a public denunciation, and anything short of that would have been characterized as Trump knuckling under.

    In context, Trump more or less started his response by saying that all he could do was ask the question, and that Putin denied it. Clearly, he was trying to be diplomatic.

“I believe that a better approach would have been a process response rather than any sort of content response at all.”

Ridiculous. The best response would have been no response at all. Simply say “Next question” and pick another reporter without answering. And, continue to refuse to answer that question. As you note, this is a classic “Have you stopped beating your wife question”. There is no “right” answer, only wrong ones. Just as in the movie Wargames, the only way to win the game of global nuclear war is not to play, the same is true of these gotcha questions.

Trump can’t win. No matter what he says or does, his opponents will never acknowledge the win. So, his best strategy is not to play the game by their rules.

    n.n in reply to Mac45. | July 18, 2018 at 5:40 pm

    Why? Use the airtime to your advantage. Trump may have stumbled, but this is new ground for him. Let’s see if he returns to form in subsequent meetings. It may not be too late to establish his status and reassert his position in domestic politics and as an international statesman.

    inspectorudy in reply to Mac45. | July 18, 2018 at 7:19 pm

    Trump can win if he would just think before he speaks. We have all been there at one time in our lives that we wish we could do over again. This was one for Trump. Just like a married man being asked a question about his wife, he KNOWS to NEVER make her second best! Trump didn’t do that, no matter the current controversy about the FISA mess and the FBI, he should have said, “I trust my own PEOPLE”!

      rdmdawg in reply to inspectorudy. | July 19, 2018 at 8:58 am

      The IC isn’t “his” people, it’s obama’s people, and they have spent the last year attacking him and his supporters as some kind of illegitimate president. I cheered his response because our ‘IC’ *is* pure garbage. We’ve wanted a president for so long that would fight back against the lies and slander.

        inspectorudy in reply to rdmdawg. | July 19, 2018 at 3:56 pm

        The problem with your cheering is that there are hundreds of patriots in the IC community who do their jobs daily without any bias. Trump put all of them in the same basket with the handful of truly seditious a$$holes with his unfortunate comment.

          rdmdawg in reply to inspectorudy. | July 19, 2018 at 4:29 pm

          They tried to pull off a damned coup, and you’re singing a song about patriotic bureaucrats? Give me a break, not a damned one of them stood up to blow the whistle on this sedition. If they weren’t actively colluding to overthrow our duly-elected president then they were bravely sticking their heads in holes in the ground, hoping to make it until their precious retirement is vested.

          These people weren’t with me when I was in the Air Force in ’91-’95, crawling all over B-52s earning $350 a month before taxes. I’m not complaining at all, I’d do it again, but sticking up for worthless treasonous bureaucrats is not something I’m interested in doing and I’m damn glad President Trump didn’t start.

It is reported that Rosenstein asked Trump (properly) whether the announcement should occur before or after the trip and he said do it before. This interchange is exactly why Trump’s choice was a mistake. There simply is no good way to deal with a hot button issue that is in reality old news in the setting of a summit. Obama knew what the Russians were up to in 2016 and long before and chose to do nothing. As far as relations with Russia are concerned this is water under the bridge, except for the Democrats’ fantasy that these operations cost Hillary Clinton the election and that Trump had something to do with them.

    Fen in reply to cwillia1. | July 18, 2018 at 11:10 pm

    “It is reported that Rosenstein asked Trump (properly) whether the announcement should occur before or after the trip and he said do it before”

    I missed that. Where did you get that information? If true then I need to correct some assumptions I made about Rosenstein.

Compare the headlines of 2day with those of Reagan’s days…
None of the lame street media types are willing to look back that far out of fear that they (too) will be forgotten… Just like those who saw/see the end of the world as ‘they’ knew it..

Great analysis, neo.

In fact I plan to try this technique next time my wife asks me if I did the dishes last night.

Frankly, what I heard Trump say was that he listened to the intelligence committee and to Putin and neither answer was satisfactory.

Latus Dextro | July 18, 2018 at 7:09 pm

DJT will smile broadly, and will resolutely continue, to his back a wellspring of support. He learns fast. Meanwhile, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks,” a lynching mob of Leftist Globalist media supported by the Obama residuum with Obama pontificating nicely on cue in South Africa continue like the oozlum bird to ‘fly around in ever-decreasing circles until they succeed in flying up themselves, disappearing completely’, leaving a clutch of hardened fanatics and a habituated cling-ons’.
The rest may be found at # Walk Away.

(The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as “A mythical bird displaying ridiculous behaviour” and speculates that the word could have been suggested by the word ouzel, meaning a blackbird (turdus merula). The earliest citation recorded by the dictionary dates from 1858.)

I do wonder about Trump’s communication strategy. How I wish Trump’s every answer to question(s) from the MSM would 1) never apologize, 2) never (or very rarely) explain, 3) highlight MSM hypocrisy for giving a pass to the actions of the previous administration in similar circumstances, 4) change the subject by introducing a positive.

With regard to his approach with Putin, I wish Trump had said:

“Would you prefer I draw red lines from which to continually retreat, like my predecessor did?”

Neo still the NeverTrumper

    To be fair, he doesn’t claim to be a Never Trumper.

    “Never a NeverTrumper, but definitely a huge Trump critic during the 2016 presidential campaign, I wanted to be wrong about him.”

    Although I have to ask, at this point, what would it take to bring him around. We’re surrounded by Antifa, Democrats, both wings of the Establishment Party, the Deep State. And getting stabbed in the back by traitorous NeverTrump Cucks like George Will and Max Boot. And then there’s Caleb Howe.

    I think that lot has the role of critic pretty well covered. Like I said, we’re surrounded on all sides and could really use the help Neo. Are you going to broadcast the Principled Position while watching us fall? What is holding you back?

      RobM in reply to Fen. | July 19, 2018 at 1:23 am

      Neo may not “claim” to be a never Trumper, but I’ll say, from where I sit, as a former regular reader of that blog, they lost me in 2015-16, as did NRO, and about 12 others. I get it, they hate him. Only the most influential Presidency for conservatives, AND the whole country since 1912. I pity those that just don’t get it. Nah, screw ’em.

“I trust my own people”

I think that’s a greater mistake. With recent revelations of the Deep State coup attempt, fake dossier, suspect FISA warrant, Obama weaponizing FBI and CIA to wiretap opponents campaign, Comey, Strozk, Brennan… it’s simply not credible that Trump trusts his intelligence agencies.

Heck, the biggest fallout so far is how the public’s faith and respect for the FBI has nosedived.

The people who support Trump would have viewed such a statement as a typical politician’s lie and betrayal, like Bush’s Katrina moment when he turned his back on all the loyalists who put their reputations on tbe line defending him.

What have we really learned from this apparent gaffe? Trump errs, publicly admits his mistakes and the Left and NeverTrumper Traitors accept that and move on? Hardly.

We have learned that their arguments and complaints are dishonest and not made in good faith. They simply want Trump neutered at whatever cost. And they will try on various “principles” like overcoats until they find the one that fits.

We suspected they were false, now we have proof. So give them nothing but contempt and scorn. And then ignore them. They are not part of anything constructive to America.

    cucho in reply to Fen. | July 19, 2018 at 8:00 am

    Trump’s “own people” are NOT the intelligence agencies Obama left behind. Clapper’s anbd Brennan’s minions.


You characterize my attitude towards Trump as president incorrectly. See this, to take just one example of what I’ve written since his election.

I thought the President’s remarks were perfect. He did exactly opposite of what Bush or Obama would have said. He did exactly opposite of what most politicians would have done. He left the door ajar to work with Putin… and he rightly said our intel folks have shown, by deed and word, they are partisan hacks with agendas… in so many words not uttered.

Then he got to fly home, from a outstanding trip and watch the masks fall. He got to watch, who seemed to be on his side, rush to comment and make demands for retractions, etc. That is priceless intel. Now he knows… even better, who he can trust and who will carp and whine at a supposed miscue. It was well worth just that to take measure and write down names. It was worth 24 hours of hair on fire, just for that.

I think people need to give things a bit of a rest. Retrospectives l8ke this article are pointless because of one simple fact. Short of throwing a suplex off the top rope there is absolutely NOTHING Trump could have saud to appease the media.

All this fucking hand wringing achieves is to tell the enemy of the people, and let’s not fuck about here as the media really is the enemy of the people, that they are on to something.

They aren’t. What was said was said. End of. Move the fuck on.

Meanwhile the adults in charge are able to work with the Russians on reigning in the Iranians in Syria and Americans don’t get to die in a shooting war with Russia.

Trump and Republicans should respond to questions about Russian meddling by saying that it had no significant effect on the election and is not worth wasting our time on. The $100,000 the Russians spent was insignificant compared to the $2.5 billion spent by Republicans and Democrats.