Michael Cohen and how lawyers protect their clients from the press with faulty logic

For some reason the press ask Trump’s personal lawyer questions about Trump’s behaviour. It is as if they expect him to admit to what they are asking. Mr Cohen has been successful for the reason he can deny and has plausible deniability on any of the issues that have been asked. In particular, he uses faulty or fallacious arguments to confuse the reporters.

Like the exchange between Kellyannne Conway and Anderson Cooper, the following statement relies on a fallacious argument.[1] Like Mr Cooper, the Wall Street Journal journalist (Alexandra Berzon) does not comment on the fallacy. They accept it at face value without probing it or clarify it.

When asked about allegations that Trump recorded telephone conversations, Mr Cohen responded as follows.

Michael Cohen, Mr. Trump’s personal attorney, said, “In the decade that I worked for Mr. Trump, I have never seen a recording device attached to his phone, nor am I aware of any occasion where he taped a conversation.”[2]

Like Mrs Conway, Mr Cohen relies on a fallacious argument. It is called the vacuous truth.[3] That Mr Cohen has not seen it nor is aware of it proves nothing about Trump’s behaviour except that Mr Cohen has not seen it. It sounds like a great lawyer-like answer, but it is empty of any meaning.

The following counter examples show vacuity of Mr Cohen’s statement.

  1. Trump may have done it before Mr Cohen was employed.
  2. Trump may do it when Mr Cohen is not around (to give Mr Cohen plausible deniability.)
  3. Mr Cohen may not know what the devices look like. (He believes it must be attached to record).
  4. Mr Trump may make recordings without a device attached to his phone.
  5. Mr Cohen may not know what technological means exist to tape a conversation.
  6. Mr Trump might not tell Mr Cohen everything he does.
  7. Mr Cohen is not with Mr Trump at all times so there is much he will not see.

The reporter does not pick up on the quality of his response. If they are not going to pick up on this issue, then why are they asking Mr Cohen what he knows or does not know about Mr Trump?

If journalists are to hold politicians to account, then they need to challenge fallacious statements. Otherwise the public will infer from the statement that President Trump has never recorded anyone because his lawyer said so. Moreover, as it is a lawyer that adds further influence to the public. If the point of the interview is to find out about President Trump, then it failed. More to the point, the journalist should have known this before they asked the question or at least be prepared to ask follow up questions that reveal something about President Trump.

[1] https://mediameditations.wordpress.com/2017/05/13/kellyanne-conway-anderson-cooper-and-journalisms-dearth-of-critical-thinking/

[2] https://www.wsj.com/articles/former-employees-of-donald-trump-say-they-saw-him-tape-conversations-1494715712?tesla=y&mod=e2tw

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vacuous_truth

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About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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