Incrimination by presupposition? The Goldstone e-mail

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Paul Kay offered the following item for discussion around the water cooler at Language Log central:

Here's an excerpt from the initial email from Rob Goldstone to Donald Trump, Jr.:

​"This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its  government’s support for Mr. Trump – helped along by Aras and Emin."​

Is it worth noting the use of the possessive determiner​? I guess it's generally accepted that possessive determiners involve  some kind of existence presupposition, though I'm aware that there's a lot more to that subject than I know. In the current instance, the presupposition would be that there is in fact Russian government support for Trump. …

Paul continues:

“Why this presupposition might be interesting is that Goldstone seems to be taking it for granted that Trump Jr. is aware of Russia's (active) support and Trump Jr.'s lack of objection to this apparent assumption on Goldstone's part suggests that he (Trump Jr.) finds nothing untoward in Goldstone's tacit assumption. Would the existence of tacit agreement between G and T that cooperation exists between the campaign and the Russian government constitute evidence that there is in fact cooperation between the campaign and the Russian government?”

Those of us who were by the water cooler agree that Paul is right about the presupposition. One has to be careful, because in some contexts, like "I want to see proof/evidence of your love", there is not a presupposition of the existence of love. The lack of presupposition is even stronger in examples like "I haven't seen any evidence of their involvement in the affair." "There's no evidence of his support for such measures." But those are contexts that actively question or deny the relevant existence claim; such contexts can cancel the presupposition of existence.

But the given context, which we can simplify to "This is part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump", contains nothing that would conflict with the presupposition of the existence of support for Mr. Trump by Russia and its government, so the presupposition survives.

The fact that the existence of such support is presupposed and not asserted is of particular interest, as Paul notes, because it’s thereby presented as old, familiar information; Goldstone is not informing Trump Jr about the support, but assuming that that’s shared information both already have. What’s new is what preceded that sentence — news of an offer to provide documents which “would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.”

As Paul notes, Donald Trump Jr.’s lack of objection or reaction to that presupposition supports the impression that the existence of Russian government support is shared knowledge: there seems to be tacit agreement between Goldstone and Trump that the Russian government is supporting Mr. Trump. Of course that doesn’t follow absolutely; it’s always possible to be surprised someone’s presupposition but simply “accommodate” it, add it silently to the “common ground” without expressing your surprise. But at the very least, as Kai von Fintel notes, the presupposition is being accepted as unremarkable, even if not actually already taken for granted. The net result is still tacit agreement about the Russian support.

Paul wonders if that tacit agreement on the occasion of setting up a meeting would constitute evidence of cooperation between the campaign and the Russian government. But I’m just a linguist, so while I’m prepared to argue for the presupposition, I’ll stop with that and let the legal experts take it from there.



39 Comments »

  1. Amy Tick said,

    July 16, 2017 @ 1:27 pm

    Great discussion. Thank you.

  2. Neal Goldfarb said,

    July 16, 2017 @ 2:32 pm

    The email and Junior's failure to express surprise would be relevant (in the legal sense) to the issue of whether there was cooperation, the standard of relevance, in federal court at least, being whether the evidence makes it more probable that the fact for which it is offered is true than would be the case without the evidence. (That's pretty similar to the notion of relevance under Relevance Theory, if the relevance inquiry under RT is narrowed to whether the evidence produces a positive cognitive effect with regard to a specific topic).

    In a litigation context, the next question would be whether the evidence is admissible, and in particular whether it would be excluded as hearsay. Given what we know about the facts, together with reasonable guesses about what additional facts are likely to emerge, I think that there's pretty good likelihood that a hearsay objection would be denied.

    The basis for such a denial would be the rule that (1) if the out-of-court statement was made by a member of a conspiracy, (2) the statement was made in order to further the conspiracy's objectives, and (3) the statement is offered as evidence against another conspirator, it does not constitute hearsay. Each member of a conspiracy are regarded as an agent of all the other members, so that each member is regarded as being authorized to speak on behalf of the other members as to matters within the scope of the conspiracy. This means that one member's out-of-court statement is treated as an authorized admission by the member against whom the statement is offered as evidence.

    Assuming that conditions (1)-(3), above, are satisfied, the evidence could come in at trial. And note that in deciding whether there was a conspiracy and whether the person against whom the statement is offered was a conspirator, the judge may consider the statement itself, although it is not enough by itself to establish those facts.

    This leaves the question of whether Junior's failure to express surprise about Goldstone's statement would be admissible. To some extent, that issue might be moot, since Junior's entire email would probably be admissible to prove the circumstances of how the meeting came about. But if one focuses on the silence issue, the question would be whether the failure to express surprise, in circumstances where an expression of surprise would be expected if Junior didn't previously know about Russia's support, was tantamount to an assertion that he was aware of it. I don't have time now to research that question, but I think I've at least outlined the scope of what the relevant legal issues would be.

  3. Michael P said,

    July 16, 2017 @ 5:07 pm

    A lot of pushy people include statements like that as part of their pitch, usually in hopes that the listener will not challenge a dodgy assumption or presumption.

    Legally, it seems like begging the question to say that the email — which is currently the strongest piece of evidence in favor of some illegal conspiracy — can be admitted to support the conspiracy theory. If we assume there is a conspiracy, and that Gladstone and Trump Jr. are among the conspirators, we can use this email to show that there is a conspiracy?

    From what we know of the meeting, the purpose that Gladstone claimed for it was a sham: The Russian lawyer's goal was not to disclose information that would be useful to Trump (Sr.)'s campaign, but to discuss the Obama administration's sanctions against Russia. That strongly undercuts the idea that there was any kind of conspiracy at work here.

  4. Linda Seebach said,

    July 16, 2017 @ 5:14 pm

    One of the uses of presupposition in persuasive writing is to implant information in the reader's mind about a subject of which he previously had no knowledge, in such a way that the person so informed is unaware of how he came to "know" the information.

    I don't think we know whether Goldstone knew (or believed) that the Russian government supported Trump's candidacy and that Donald Jr. did as well; or whether he thought Donald Jr. didn't have a clue and the presupposition was designed to make him believe something that wasn't true.

  5. bks said,

    July 16, 2017 @ 5:54 pm

    Michael P.: I think you're begging the question by ignoring that

    Veselnitskaya brought with her a plastic folder with printed-out documents that detailed what she believed was the flow of illicit funds to the Democrats, Akhmetshin said. Veselnitskaya presented the contents of the documents to the Trump associates and suggested that making the information public could help the campaign, he said.

    https://apnews.com/dceed1008d8f45afb314aca65797762a/Russian-American-lobbyist-says-he-was-in-Trump-son

  6. Sandwichman said,

    July 16, 2017 @ 6:00 pm

    @Michael P: "From what we know of the meeting…"

    What we know of the meeting is mainly what Donald Jr. has told us and so far he has told us three different versions, each one a denial but each successive one confirming some elements that were denied in previous versions.

    So we know something else about the meeting. That the participants were reluctant to disclose what they knew of the meeting.

  7. Paul Kay said,

    July 16, 2017 @ 7:00 pm

    I'm afraid we're getting away from the linguistic point here, which is based on the difference between an assertion and a presupposition. If A is talking to B and A asserts X, the most usual circumstance is that A believes B doesn't yet know X and wants to persuade B that X is the case. I know there are million exceptions to this scenario ("As you know well, blah, blah"), but the point is that in asserting X, A normally assumes or pretends to assume that B doesn't know X. The normal situation for presupposition is quite different. If A says something to B that presupposes X, A assumes that B already knows X, and that A and B can each take for granted that X is part of the shared conversational background. As Barbara pointed out, what Goldstone asserted was that the Russian lawyer would present documents whose contents were damaging to Clinton. What Goldstone presupposed (took for granted) in using the noun phrase including the possessive apostrophe-s construction "Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump" is that the Russian's government's support for Trump is a fact taken for granted by both Goldstone and Trump Jr. If you disagree with that analysis, fine. But in disagreeing please notice that that is the essential content of the post.

  8. Paul Kay said,

    July 16, 2017 @ 7:01 pm

    Sorry about Russian's government's

  9. JPL said,

    July 17, 2017 @ 1:00 am

    Thank you Paul Kay for noticing this. I was struck, in the accounts of this development, by the fact that Don Jr. did not express surprise at this bit of info, even though it was presented as presupposed (and if this was normal language usage, this is what we would expect). If it were not already known, how could he have resisted going to dad, "Hey dad! Did you know the Russian government is supporting our campaign?" But I have not been sure of Goldstone's role or how much he is in the know about this operation. It's possible that Goldstone was presented with instructions to construct a message, and he took for granted that the Trump campaign knew about the Russian support without himself knowing whether this was true or not. When the accounts of this incident are placed in a more filled out timeline we will no doubt be able to make sense of the expressed presupposed status of the Russian Government support info. That's what we have so far: Goldstone's message expressed this information as presupposed to the addressee. The question: Why was it expressed this way? The speech event that initially revealed this info is apparently as yet hidden. On the other hand, the purpose of the Russian intelligence agencies wrt this meeting could well have been a "dangle" that they inserted into an ostensibly above- board meeting, in order to see what the Trump team would do with this info and the suggestion of dirt on Clinton; e.g., if they "agreed" that this info was presupposed. We should probably wait to see how this fits in to the investigation.

  10. AntC said,

    July 17, 2017 @ 6:16 am

    … Donald Trump Jr.’s lack of objection or reaction to that presupposition

    Pshaw! He reacted by replying to the email within 20 minutes. He reacted by agreeing to the meeting. He reacted by also bringing Kuchner and Manafort.

    It doesn't matter what was Goldstone's meaning; or if Goldstone was blowing smoke/knew he was telling a pack of lies. It doesn't matter if Goldstone is a nincompoop who would say absolutely anything to get a meeting.

    What matters is that Trump Jr. did not immediately contact the FBI. Neither did Kuchner (OK, a relative naif) nor Manafort (definitely politically savvy) — they both got copies of all the emails.

    I can see lots of reasons why a prospective administration would want to build relationships with all sorts of power players. You'd think they'd start with allies. But we aren't hearing of 'deep background' meetings with Canadians or Brits or Germans or French or S. Americans or Japanese or S. Koreans or …

    Shame on the Republican Party for continuing to protect these idiots. Shame that they do not insist Trump Sr releases his Tax filings. The explanation for the Russian contacts is there.

    And shame on you for thinking a "linguistic point" could somehow be abstracted from non-verbal behaviour. It's not even incrimination by negligence: "actions speak louder than words".

  11. Breffni said,

    July 17, 2017 @ 7:32 am

    Not a lawyer, but on the surface I think it would be very hard to make the argument from presupposition stick, precisely because accommodation is so common and unremarkable. "I overheard a conversation on the bus to work this morning…" (hearer mightn't even know speaker had a job still less that she commutes by bus), "Sandy's wife was telling me…" (didn't know Sandy was married), etc. So that could explain Goldstone's use of a presuppositional structure (i.e., he was conveying to Don Jr something that as far as Goldstone was concerned Don Jr might or might not know, as a not-at-issue proposition, as I think Language Log's Chris Potts would call it).

    Then Don Jr only has to add that as it happens he didn't know about Russian support for his father prior to Goldstone's email; accommodated it silently because he was in a hurry and didn't want or need to go into the details at that point; and he didn't find it particularly surprising that the Russian government had a preferred candidate, nor that their preferred candidate was his father. (The email only refers to Russian "support", which can be passive, not a "campaign" or "efforts", for example. Clearly, providing information is active, but the allegation is that the allegedly culpable state of affairs obtained and was shared knowledge prior to the email.)

    Obviously that still wouldn't look good for Don Jr, but it's consistent with the naivety arguments that have been put out to date, and it's plausible enough to seriously weaken any argument that the language indicates shared knowledge / conspiracy.

    NB: I'm only talking about this presupposition argument. Apart from that, the whole thing stinks diabolically, and I'm amazed at the extent to which Trump surrogates have been allowed to get away with the misdirection tactic that "it was all over in twenty minutes and nothing came of it", which seem to me exactly analogous to a defence that "Sure I agreed to meet X for a million-dollar drug deal, but actually the drugs turned out to be garbage and I passed, so what's your problem?"

  12. Mark P said,

    July 17, 2017 @ 8:09 am

    Best case interpretation for Don Jr:
    "There's a conspiracy with Russia to get Dad elected? I didn't know, but I'm in for that!"

  13. Peggy Speas said,

    July 17, 2017 @ 9:22 am

    Wait. Isn't there also a presupposition inherent in the demonstrative plus partitive? "This is part of X "- That presupposes the existence of X, doesn't it? Along with the denotation, according to which X includes 'this' plus other stuff. So even if the presupposition of the possessive is weak, the sentence presupposes that Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump exists.

  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 17, 2017 @ 9:36 am

    If a hypothetical prosecutor in a hypothetical prosecution tried to put on a linguistics expert to bolster the notion that the failure to include an explicit statement of surprise at the presupposition when responding to the email that had included it was evidence that the recipient already knew the fact, I would think the defense (if this was a point they were fighting about) would want to know what peer-reviewed empirical research published in a reputable scholarly journal establishes that such explicit reactions of surprise to new information occur 100% of the time or 95% of the time or even 51% of the time in ordinary conversations. (Is there such research?) You might follow that up with questions trying to establish that in ordinary conversations surprise and/or pleasure at interesting new information embedded in a presupposition might often be expressed via facial expression or tone of voice rather than via express words, and that email senders frequently fail to word emails so carefully as to fully compensate for the loss of the information they would probably have transmitted via those other modes of expression if they'd been having the same conversation face to face.

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 17, 2017 @ 10:19 am

    Beyond that, I would think the legal fight would be over whether the hypothetical prosecution could use an expert witness in the first place, or whether the jurors' own native-speaker competence would be more than adequate for them to consider what inferences to draw from the failure of the email's recipient to express surprise and how strong those inferences might be. Many judges are reluctant to allow experts to testify in an area where common-sense non-specialist reactions to the evidence are adequate, for fear of allowing one side of a debate between rival common-sense intuitions to be unduly bolstered by the veneer of Science.

  16. Breffni said,

    July 17, 2017 @ 10:45 am

    Many judges are reluctant to allow experts to testify in an area where common-sense non-specialist reactions to the evidence are adequate

    Which seems sensible, and applicable in this case. I'm not convinced the linguistic analysis does much more than apply technical labels to common-sense phenomena. I take the aim of pragmatics (and much of linguistics) to be understanding speaker intuitions rather than second-guessing them.

  17. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 17, 2017 @ 11:01 am

    I agree with Breffni, although I might add that even if trying to put a linguistics expert in front of the jury would be impermissible or unnecessary, consulting with such an expert beforehand might be useful for the lawyers (on either side) in assisting them to figure out how to convince the jurors to use their existing common-sense understanding of pragmatics the way that side of the case wants them to. Using technical labels might well be counterproductive, but the technical-label folks have sometimes organized native speaker intuitions into a more rigorous framework than the native speakers are consciously aware of, and lawyers could perhaps leverage that schematic/organizational work by scholars to help them draw out a level of sophisticated analysis the jurors already tacitly possessed but might not have had front and center in their minds until successfully elicited.

  18. Paul Kay said,

    July 17, 2017 @ 12:34 pm

    @Peggy Speas. Yes, indeed. "This is not part of X," would equally commit the speaker to the existence of X. (Or so it seems to me.)

    Breffni, among others, points to the ubiquity of accommodation: 'Not a lawyer, but on the surface I think it would be very hard to make the argument from presupposition stick, precisely because accommodation is so common and unremarkable. "I overheard a conversation on the bus to work this morning…" (hearer mightn't even know speaker had a job still less that she commutes by bus).' Accommodation is common and unremarkable precisely when what is being accommodated to is unremarkable, as Barbara Partee pointed out that Kai Von Fintel had noted. It's hard to suppose that someone in Trump Jr's position at the time would think that the Russian government's active engagement in helping his father's election chances was unremarkable — unless he already knew it. "Ho, hum, so the Russian government is out to help Dad win the election — big deal!" Not likely IMHO. But what can be made to stick in a court of law and what conclusions a reasonable person may draw from a given set of observations are, and probably should be, different. (The presumption of innocence, for example, is a fundamental principle of any system of justice deserving of the name.) I have no reason to challenge Breffni's opinion on what arguments regarding Goldstone's email a court would be likely to accept.

  19. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 17, 2017 @ 2:15 pm

    A further step might be to test any interpretative theory by asking how it would respond if the underlying communication had been different. Suppose the email thread had contained a response from Donald Jr. professing surprise at the alleged interest of the Russian gov't? Would that be considered to exonerate him from any prior knowledge of that interest? Or would it, given the entire context, instead be interpreted by those already suspicious about what was going on as insincere, and a clumsy attempt to cover his tracks (and/or signal to the other fellow that he was being indiscreet), with easy parallels being drawn by internet pundits to the famous "shocked to find gambling going on" scene in Casablanca? If, viewing Donald Jr. in a sufficiently cynical light, both expressing surprise and failing to express surprise could easily be consistent with ones prior suspicions about what what was really going on, then the failure to express surprise would seem to lack freestanding evidentiary value.

    Pragmatics has or at least should have a whole subset you might call "cynical pragmatics," about how to interpret statements made by speakers not assumed by the interpreter to be sincere, acting in good faith, etc. I guess some of Grice's own examples about the deliberate flouting of his maxims being ways to signal implicatures that a speaker might not be willing to state explicitly (e.g. the job recommendation letter that signals a negative evaluation of the would-be assistant professor by referring positively to his punctuality and/or penmanship) would be part of that subfield?

  20. Haamu said,

    July 17, 2017 @ 7:09 pm

    All of this reminds me of the thread here seven years ago about Sarah Palin's idiosyncratic use of "that" (as in "He sounded that warning bell," presupposing the existence of the bell more powerfully than "the" or "a" could have done).

    Paul Kay figured in that thread as well. Back then, I contended that while Palin might have used normal presupposition (where A assumes that B already knows X), she was more into a common political variant (A wants B to accept X uncritically). Paul called this "smuggling" propositions past inattentive (or uncritical) listeners into the common ground.

    I'll suggest that something similar might be happening in this case. Goldstone might not assume Trump Jr. already knows about Russian support; in fact, he might assume Trump Jr. doesn't know about it. But he'd like Trump Jr. to accept the proposition uncritically, without evidence, if that will increase the chances of Trump Jr. coming to a meeting and hearing a pitch about removing sanctions.

    I don't seek to exonerate Trump Jr., only to point out that, if inquiry is limited to this one email string, his defense has a lot of options. Fortunately (for what I see as the cause of justice), the inquiry will not need to be so limited.

  21. Haamu said,

    July 17, 2017 @ 7:20 pm

    Also: Am I the only one intrigued by the phrase "Russia and its government's support"? Most of you seem to equate this to "the Russian government's support," but that isn't correct. There's an "and" in there, meaning two distinct entities. Who is "Russia," if not the Russian government?

    Who, indeed?

    Now, there's a deft bit of smuggling!

  22. Joe said,

    July 17, 2017 @ 9:23 pm

    "Silence is not acquiescence."

  23. Neal Goldfarb said,

    July 17, 2017 @ 10:07 pm

    Michael P. says:

    Legally, it seems like begging the question to say that the email — which is currently the strongest piece of evidence in favor of some illegal conspiracy — can be admitted to support the conspiracy theory. If we assume there is a conspiracy, and that Gladstone and Trump Jr. are among the conspirators, we can use this email to show that there is a conspiracy?

    That reaction is understandable, but in light of the relevant legal procedure, the issue is more complicated than it seems.

    In federal court, the rules of evidence (other than rules of privilege) don't restrict the evidence that the judge can consider in ruling on whether a given piece of evidence is admissible — though if the judge wants to consider evidence that is otherwise, the jury isn't allowed to hear it; they will be sent back into the jury room while the evidence is presented to the judge.

    So in deciding whether the co-conspirator exception applies (whether there was a conspiracy, whether the person against whom the evidence will be offered was a member of the conspiracy, and whether the statement was made in furtherance of the conspiracy's objectives), the judge can consider the statement itself. If the evidence is held to be inadmissible, the jury won't hear it (unless there's some other basis for admitting it). OTOH, if the evidence is held to be admissible, it will have to be presented to the jury, which would not have heard it the first time around.

    If the admissibility issue overlaps with the ultimate issue on the merits (guilty vs. not guilty; liable vs. not liable), the evidence will be admissible only if there is enough evidence to support a finding of conspiracy even without the alleged co-conspirator's statement.

    As a result, the problem of begging the question that Michael P. raised is mitigated if not eliminated, at least in the case of a jury trial. In a bench trial, where there is no jury and the judge acts as the fact-finder, Michael P.'s concern is more valid. However, the theory is that judges will be able to compartmentalize the evidence they have heard, so that their decision on the merits won't be contaminated by any inadmissible evidence that the judge may have heard in the course of ruling on admissibility. That will obviously be problematic in many cases.

  24. Neal Goldfarb said,

    July 17, 2017 @ 10:09 pm

    Huh, I wonder why my HTML tags in the previous comment didn't have any effect. Maybe related to the fact that the preview function wasn't working when I typed the comment?

  25. Barbara Partee said,

    July 17, 2017 @ 10:18 pm

    Neal, if you can't get the html tags in, send them to me and I'll try to put them wherever you tell me to. If I can't, I'll pass it on to Mark, who can do anything that can be done.

  26. Barbara Partee said,

    July 17, 2017 @ 10:26 pm

    Around the water cooler the question came up about whether to leave comments open or closed. I was a little worried that all the comments would be political. But at least after Paul's first reminder, they've all been related in one way or another to the linguistic issues connected with the probable presupposition. And I've been happy to learn about some of the legal issues related to that. I agree with Breffni and Brewer about the marginal role of linguists' expert opinion here — it's probably right that having a linguist in court wouldn't be very helpful unless it were a linguist who already knows how to talk to jurors in language they can understand and appreciate, but potentially useful for the lawyers to talk to linguists.
    Overall I've found the comments interesting, relevant, and informative, so I'm indeed glad I left them open. Thank you all. Of course biggest thanks to Paul for getting this started. (And this isn't meant to end the conversation.)

  27. Neal Goldfarb said,

    July 17, 2017 @ 10:48 pm

    A few additional words about the discussion in my initial comment about the hearsay rule.

    First, I was probably too quick to assume that when Junior failed to express surprise to Goldstone's presupposition when he replied to Goldstone, that failure would be considered hearsay. While nonverbal conduct can count as an out-of-court statement, and therefore can be potentially subject to the hearsay rule, it can count as a statement only if it was intended as an assertion. It's unlikely that Junior intended his failure to express surprise to have any assertive content. So maybe that failure wouldn't raise any hearsay problems after all.

    J.W. Brewer raised the question whether expert testimony by linguists would be allowed. There are actually two questions: First, could such testimony be presented to the jury? The answer to that question is almost certainly no. And second, would the judge would allow expert testimony or (more likely) affidavits on whether the inference was permissible? That is a legal issue to be decided by the judge, not the jury. It's not out of the question that the testimony/affidavit would be allowed, but that that would be far from a sure thing.

    However, I suspect there would still be a dispute about whether the jury would be allowed to infer from Junior's failure to express surprise that he was already aware of Russia's support for Dad. For example, the defense could move that the prosecution be prohibited from making such an argument to the jury–e.g., on the theory that the argument would require the jury to speculate. Or maybe the prosecution would ask for a jury instruction saying that the jury would be permitted to draw an inference of prior awareness, and the defense would oppose that request.

    It would be at that point that the linguistic issue raised by Paul Kay would be squarely presented. I think I'm more optimistic than Breffni about the chances that the judge would hold that a presupposition-based inference would be permissible. (Permissible meaning that the jury could rationally draw the inference, not that the inference would be required.)

    I agree with J.W. Brewer that even if expert testimony were not allowed, linguists could help the lawyers to prepare linguistically-informed arguments about presuppositions, both on the legal issue of whether the inference is permissible and (if the answer to that question was yes) as part of arguing to the jury that they should in fact draw the inference. This statement by J.W. is right on the money:

    "Using technical labels might well be counterproductive, but the technical-label folks have sometimes organized native speaker intuitions into a more rigorous framework than the native speakers are consciously aware of, and lawyers could perhaps leverage that schematic/organizational work by scholars to help them draw out a level of sophisticated analysis the jurors already tacitly possessed but might not have had front and center in their minds until successfully elicited."

  28. Neal Goldfarb said,

    July 17, 2017 @ 10:58 pm

    A final point about my initial discussion of hearsay: I banged out the comment without a whole lot of prior thought, and with only a quick glance at the relevant rules. I've undoubtedly overlooked or oversimplified various issues, or otherwise missed the boat. If you're dissatisfied with that state affairs, I can guarantee that if you go to the cashier's office in Language Log Plaza you can obtain a complete refund.

  29. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    July 18, 2017 @ 12:16 am

    I agree with Breffni.

    @Paul Kay:

    > Accommodation is common and unremarkable precisely when what is being accommodated to is unremarkable, as Barbara Partee pointed out that Kai Von Fintel had noted. It's hard to suppose that someone in Trump Jr's position at the time would think that the Russian government's active engagement in helping his father's election chances was unremarkable — unless he already knew it.

    Or maybe it's just unremarkable alongside the rest of the e-mail. If someone says to you, "My wife and I drove to Kansas this summer, with all twelve kids packed in the RV, to go look for UFOs; but we never saw any. Total waste of a trip, but we'll try again next year", you may be surprised about the twelve kids, but that's probably not the part you'll react to.

  30. James Wimberley said,

    July 18, 2017 @ 5:37 am

    BKS: Akhmetshin admits having served as a Russian counterintelligence officer. You can't really retire from jobs like that, and conspiracy theories are the default interpretation of what they say, not the last resort. In thus case, what he is saying is very damaging to Trump. The conspiracy theory is that he is now an asset of a US intelligence agency, and this I formation is designed to harm Trump.

  31. ajay said,

    July 18, 2017 @ 6:27 am

    Am I the only one intrigued by the phrase "Russia and its government's support"? Most of you seem to equate this to "the Russian government's support," but that isn't correct. There's an "and" in there, meaning two distinct entities. Who is "Russia," if not the Russian government?

    Yes, that caught my attention. There are cases in which you could make that distinction, with "Russia" implicitly representing the Russian population, or just the geographical area. You could say that you "like Russia but not the Russian government", or that "Russia loved the latest Bond film, but the Russian government did not". So maybe that's the intended meaning here?

  32. ajay said,

    July 18, 2017 @ 6:29 am

    It should probably be "Russia's and its government's support", anyway.

  33. Haamu said,

    July 18, 2017 @ 7:02 am

    @ajay: It seems clear (and should have been clear to Trump Jr.) that "Russia" here does not refer to the Russian people. Aside from the fact that there's no evidence the Russia people as a whole supported Trump, there's the context:

    The Crown prosecutor of Russia … offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary…. This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr Trump

    So, "Russia" has to be somebody who has the power to make "official," "high level and sensitive" documents and information available.

    If you read a phrase like "France's support" or "India's support," you'd have two options to resolve the meaning: the government or the people. With "Russia's support," however, there's a third option.

    Simply put, this can be taken as a way of signaling to Trump Jr. that Putin is personally involved.

  34. Ray said,

    July 18, 2017 @ 7:09 am

    when I first read the emails from goldstone, it struck me how overly expository and explicit they were (as well as leading, while seeming not to). almost as if they could be intended not really for donald jr.’s ears, but for cnn’s investigators/attorneys/analysts. so maybe the alleged “presupposition” here between donald jr. and goldstone is misplaced?

  35. BZ said,

    July 18, 2017 @ 9:59 am

    This an email, not a legal statement. It's perfectly acceptable (to me) to say "Russia and its government's" and mean "Russia's goverment's".

    @Haamu,
    On the contrary, according to polls, Russia and Israel are the only countries more of whose populations approve of Trump than disapprove. Of course you always have to be suspicious of public polling in countries with questionable freedom of speech.

  36. Breffni said,

    July 18, 2017 @ 10:05 am

    @J. W. Brewer:

    Pragmatics has or at least should have a whole subset you might call "cynical pragmatics," about how to interpret statements made by speakers not assumed by the interpreter to be sincere, acting in good faith, etc. I guess some of Grice's own examples about the deliberate flouting of his maxims being ways to signal implicatures that a speaker might not be willing to state explicitly (e.g. the job recommendation letter that signals a negative evaluation of the would-be assistant professor by referring positively to his punctuality and/or penmanship) would be part of that subfield?

    Flouts like the obviously irrelevant job recommendation don't involve cynicism or bad faith, at least from the point of view of the primary "hearer", the hiring committee. As long as the speaker intends the hearer to pick up on a non-explicit meaning ("don't hire this person"), then they're being cooperative in Grice's sense. On the other hand, if the writer of the recommendation was hoping that the recipient *didn't* pick up any negativity about the job applicant – wanted the applicant to get the job – while all the same trying to avoid outright dishonesty about their abilities, then that would count as uncooperative in Grice's sense: failing to be relevant and informative while *not* trying to convey an implicature.

    @Paul Kay:

    Accommodation is common and unremarkable precisely when what is being accommodated to is unremarkable […] It's hard to suppose that someone in Trump Jr's position at the time would think that the Russian government's active engagement in helping his father's election chances was unremarkable — unless he already knew it. "Ho, hum, so the Russian government is out to help Dad win the election — big deal!"

    But note that the presupposition isn't about Russia's active engagement on Trump's behalf, it's only about "support for Mr. Trump", and that can (just about) be construed as passive: support as "rooting for" rather than "assisting". And that presupposition, the notion that Russia was rooting for Trump, could easily be spun as unremarkable to a political naïf such as Don Jr. Russian "active engagement" – the offer of dirt on Hillary – is new information in that email, not presupposed. So I still think that at least in regard to the narrow argument that that particular sentence is evidence of prior shared knowledge of conspiracy/collusion, there's plenty of wriggle-room, especially by Trumpian standards.

  37. JPL said,

    July 18, 2017 @ 6:01 pm

    “Would the existence of tacit agreement between G and T that cooperation exists between the campaign and the Russian government constitute evidence that there is in fact cooperation between the campaign and the Russian government?”

    Something has been bothering me about this question that maybe needs to be clarified, I don’t know. First of all, as commenter Breffni has said, we need to distinguish, as the Russian spies seem to have done, between “support” and “active cooperation”; the e-mail says “government support”, as the sense for which we are wondering if there is a satisfying referent out there in the world, so what is tacitly agreed here between G and T as existing is Russian government support, not necessarily cooperation, which in contrast it seems to be the object of the meeting to establish. But then, the question: “does the tacit agreement between G and T that Russian support for the Trumps exists constitute evidence that there is in fact Russian support for the Trump campaign?” still may have some interest.

    In the e-mail sentence, the information about Russian government support for the Trump campaign is not asserted as new info, but is expressed as presupposed and already known to the addressee. Expressing this info in a definite or possessive NP in this way would conventionally indicate, in normal language usage, that the reference of the NP has already been established in previous discourse, that the anaphoric connection could be made by both speaker and hearer, and thus that the intended reference of the NP is an assumption shared by both speaker and hearer, and it could also indicate the shared belief that the reference of the NP is satisfied in the real world talked about. But the inference from shared assumptions and beliefs to the actual existence, or the actual satisfaction of the reference relation in the real world does not have necessity, mainly because assumptions and beliefs may be mistaken, and communicative aims may be deceitful. (I previously suggested the speaker could be mistaken about the shared belief part.) The problem of determining whether reference is satisfied is like determining whether a contested assertion is actually true of the world it refers to: among other things, it requires evidence. In this particular case, I would say that probably this is not an example of normal language use, but part of Russian spycraft, and so we should take utterances with a grain of salt. (That said, I would guess that the idea that the Russian government is supporting the Trump campaign would have been established in previous discourse, in order to obviate a reaction to the current foray like, “Hey, why is the Russian government offering us dirt on Hillary?”)

  38. Paul Kay said,

    July 18, 2017 @ 6:18 pm

    @Breffni. The whole sentence in question was "​"This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump – helped along by Aras and Emin."​ Since the support is described as being helped along by a powerful oligarch and his show-biz-celebrity son, I thought it was fair to describe the support as active, but I grant that's arguable, since, for example, the "helped along" proposition is probably best considered a separate assertion, not part of the presupposed material. If I say,"the King of France is bald," I am not presupposing a bald King of France; one needs the presupposition of that sentence to be the same as the presupposition of "The King of France is not bald." So the support is presupposed to exist (like the KoF) and asserted to have active agents. I don't think the support can be construed as passive globally because it's asserted that two influential people are helping it along. But I also think you are technically correct that the "active" property is not part of the presupposition. So I guess it comes down to whether Trump Jr. is in a position to consider unremarkable support whose existence is presupposed by the first part of the sentence and of which the 'active' property is asserted by the rest of the sentence.

  39. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    July 20, 2017 @ 4:40 pm

    The statement that 'possessive determiners involve some kind of existence presupposition' reminds me of Obama's notorious reference to 'my Muslim faith'. While this shows that such a presupposition does exist, and careful speech would reflect it, it also shows that people make slips about such things.

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