Many years I ago I took a sabbatical from my job at the Halifax Daily News to finish my degree. I took a course in advanced composition from a battleship of a woman named Patricia Monk, who was maybe the best teacher I ever had. Prof. Monk knew I was a journalist and worked me hard because she expected more from me. I remember when we studied “dirty word” (because in Prof. Monk’s world, dirty words were just as good as regular ones). She would write words on the blackboard that would make a sailor blush but I learned the difference between profanity, obscenity, and scatology. She knew the professor who next used the room was a bit of a prude so she would not erase the words at the end of class.
Prof. Monk drilled one lesson into us again and again. If you know how to use words, they can never be used against you.
Which brings me to the present moment. Robert Mueller knows how to use words. So when I read his statement about the Buzzfeed story alleging that President Trump instructed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress, I paid close attention to language. At no point in the story did Mueller and his team say the story was “wrong.”
“BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the special counsel’s office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s congressional testimony are not accurate,” the statement from the Mueller team read.
Not accurate. Hmmm. That’s the kind of language you use when someone is close to the mark but not quite on target. If something is wrong, then just say it’s wrong or that that story is not true. Not accurate is a completely different kettle of fish.
Then you have Rudy G’s statement made on the talking head shows yesterday that maybe Trump did speak to Cohen before he testified to Congress about him but “So what?” In Rudy’s world, if Trump really did shoot someone on 5th Avenue, Rudy would go on CNN and say “So what?” (Jonathan Swan of Axios explains why it’s not a “so what?” thing.) We already know that after months of Rudy telling us that Trump made no attempt to do business with Russia during the campaign, he now admits that, well, they did talk about it until November of 2016.
Marcia Wheeler of Empty Wheel has a great piece on why Mueller had to make the statement in order to preserve Cohen’s ability to testify in a trail.
I would also argue that Mueller did Trump no favors, especially after Trump then tweeted Mueller his thanks for making the statement about the Buzzfeed story. It’s going to be hard now for Trump to keep crying “WITCH HUNT!!!” It will give the Mueller report much more street cred when it finally comes out.
Meanwhile, Buzzfeed continues to stand behind the story.
And that’s why words matter.