Investigations, hypothetical and otherwise

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In an interview yesterday with Chris Wallace, did Donald Trump's lawyer Jay Sekulow state that the president is being investigated by Robert Mueller ("Jay Sekulow on reports Bob Mueller has widened investigation", Fox News 6/18/2017)? It certainly sounds like he did:

But Chris Wallace is frustrated to find that a few seconds later, Sekulow nevertheless asserts that he didn't say any such thing.

Sekulow has a plausible argument that his apparent factual assertion "…now he's being investigated…" was in the middle of an implicitly hypothetical discussion of constitutional issues that would arise if he were being investigated.

It's much less clear that Donald Trump's tweeted statement "I am being investigated" was hypothetical:

So Mr. Sekulow may not have directly contradicted himself within the span of a few seconds, but he certainly failed to prevent Chris Wallace from coming to that conclusion, and also failed to avoid supporting some negative stereotypes of lawyers.

Since Sekulow is not a stupid or verbally inept person, this puzzles me. Or was his purpose to focus attention on the question of whether or not there's an investigation, and the meta-question of whether or not Sekulow admitted there's an investigation, rather than on the issues that an investigation may be investigating?

Here's the whole context, or at least the whole context as broadcast by Fox News:


  1. Jason said,

    June 19, 2017 @ 7:46 am

    Maybe like many people he has trouble keeping the lies and the facts organized properly in his head and he slipped up.

  2. Robert Coren said,

    June 19, 2017 @ 9:48 am

    Why anyone would expect any of the people involved to be telling the truth at any given moment is a mystery to me.

    [(myl) Chris Wallace mostly seems upset about the lack of self-consistency, which is different from truth.]

  3. D.O. said,

    June 19, 2017 @ 10:35 am

    I have zero understanding of what "being investigated" means legally, but still make a suggestion that "being investigated" can in common speech mean something like "investigators are asking questions about him", but in more narrow legal sense he is not a suspect, subject, or target which, as Wikipedia informs me, are the terms of art used by the Justice Department.

  4. Jonathan said,

    June 19, 2017 @ 12:17 pm

    Sekulow claims that Trump's tweet was in response to news articles that he's being investigated, and that the tweet was meant, by ridiculing the argument that he *should* be investigated, to ridicule the argument that he *is* being investigated.

    This interpretation, while certainly as syntactically and theoretically sound as it is dubious with respect to intentionality, is why I have no problem ignoring Trump's tweets: the character limitation so compresses the ability for actual argument that I rarely understand the meaning of almost any argument even from the highly articulate, much less Trump.

    Trump's tweet makes sense in Sekulow's sense if you imagine it prefixed by a suppressed "If you believe I'm under investigation, then you believe…" It is only through a lack of willingness (or in some cases leveraging of political advantage) to ascribe sensible interpretations to Trump in a highly artificial speech medium that people are driven crazy.

  5. Paul Topping said,

    June 19, 2017 @ 12:45 pm

    I agree with D.O. on this. Investigations like this start at the bottom and work up. Until the investigation ends, the man at the top is always "under investigation", using the informal meaning of the word. If there's a more formal definition of "under investigation" used by the FBI and/or other agencies, why should us regular folk care? Similarly for the question of whether the agency has contacted Trump to tell him he's officially "under investigation". Why is this newsworthy? On CNN this morning, one interviewee said that Meuller doesn't have to notify Trump anyway. I'm generally a staunch defender of main stream media but this raising of triviality to the "breaking news" level is giving themselves a black eye.

  6. J said,

    June 19, 2017 @ 1:20 pm

    Trump couldn't ended his tweet with a question mark, and he'd preserve meaning in his limited medium.

  7. JPL said,

    June 19, 2017 @ 9:00 pm

    It's not the action (the firing of Comey), but the reason for the action that should be in focus here as the problematic phenomenon. Not making this distinction clear is at the root of this miscommunication.

    1) As demonstrated in the Lester Holt interview, T’s decision to fire Comey was independent of (not logically dependent on) the memo of Rosenstein/Sessions. We tentatively are taking it as given, from the evidence of the Holt interview as well as the statements in the meeting with the Russian FM and ambassador, that the reason T fired Comey was to put an end to not just the Flynn investigation, but the Russian investigation as a whole. Not only was this decision (we suppose) made prior to the Rosenstein memo, but the reasons given in support of the action of firing Comey by Rosenstein are different from the one offered by T. So, the decision of T to fire Comey was not logically based on or pragmatically influenced by the Rosenstein memo or the reasons expressed in it.

    2) If T is being or is going to be investigated, it would be not for “firing Comey”, but for attempting to obstruct the investigation being carried out under the FBI director into Flynn and the Russian involvement in meddling in the 2016 election, i.e., not for the action, but the reason for the action. The law allows the president to fire the FBI director at their discretion, but it is not correct to say that he can fire him for no reason or without a reason: firing someone is a purposeful, adaptive action, and almost by definition any action has a reason for that action. (It’s not like a sneeze or something done accidentally.) Some reasons for actions are not acceptable, such as doing something deliberately in order to obstruct a legitimate investigation. That would be an impeachable offense, and that’s what we’re talking about here.

    3) It’s quite possible that T has not been informed by the special counsel that he is under investigation, and that his tweets were a response to news articles and were attempts to engage in a PR operation w/ his base. However, apparently there is an investigation by the special counsel into possible obstruction of justice of the Russian investigation involving the reasons for firing Comey, among other things. It would be expected that eventually these investigations would come to focus on T’s actions and the reasons for them. Apparently the investigation has not yet in fact been impeded, but the question is, were actions done in an attempt to do so.

    So, did the lawyer admit that T was being investigated? No, I don’t think so, but his expression of the “hypothetical” was muddled and included false assumptions.

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