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Another Voice: Trump's rhetorical strategy is deflection and distraction

By Richard Cherwitz

As we saw in Thursday’s reaction by the Republicans and White House to passage of the House resolution approving rules for the impeachment inquiry, the rhetorical deflection and diversion campaign by the Trump administration is predictable and ongoing.

Rather than denying the facts, whenever he is in trouble the president and his supporters distract the media and public by changing the subject, focusing on process issues and attacking others. Whether by design or effect, examples of this rhetorical tactic abound.

As someone who has studied and taught political communication for 45 years, let me offer a few cases.

First, in response to the increasing number of credible witnesses coming forward to testify that the president may have held up congressionally appropriated money to Ukraine (perhaps constituting a quid pro quo), Trump and his Republican supporters have accused the impeachment inquiry process of being unfair and denying due process.

They also have attacked the ethos of highly qualified civil servants and professional witnesses. Whether these accusations are accurate, the discourse itself takes our eyes off the content and substance of what is being said about the president.

Second, the president’s sudden and unexpected pullout from Syria, as well as his unusual letter to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, created a fury of reactions. This prompted numerous media stories and resulted in political conversations diverting attention from the impeachment inquiry and the mounting evidence of wrongdoing.

Third, Trump used his announcement of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death as what some have called a public relations stunt, focusing attention more on himself and using inflammatory and inhumane language to describe the details of the killing (the truthfulness of which has not yet been confirmed). Again, the president’s rhetoric – whether intended or not – deflected attention from the primary discourse of the time pertaining to impeachment and charges of wrongdoing.

Consider the most recent example of diversion and deflection. In a new interview conducted during his trip to Israel, Trump senior advisor Jared Kushner said that he is “cleaning up the messes Biden left.” Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio poignantly notes, “Kushner was obviously trying to distract us from the worsening impeachment crisis that has enveloped the administration, and to impress the Oval Office occupant.”

Chalk up Kushner’s gamesmanship as just one more instance of the administration’s ongoing rhetorical tactic of circumventing the truth.

Richard Cherwitz is the Ernest A. Sharpe centennial professor emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin.

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