Michael Cohen’s guilty plea? ‘Nothing to see here’

On the afternoon of Aug. 21, when news of Paul Manafort’s conviction and Michael Cohen’s plea deal emerged within...

Courtesy of Jennifer Mercieca, Texas A&M University

On the afternoon of Aug. 21, when news of Paul Manaforts conviction and Michael Cohens plea deal emerged within hours of one another, the social media channels of Donald Trumps most vociferous supporters went dark.

The statements of Cohen, Trumps longtime personal attorney, seemed damaging.

Cohen pleaded guilty to federal charges of campaign finance violations and swore, under oath, that he acted to prevent information that would be harmful to the candidate and to the campaign from reaching the public for the principal purpose of influencing the election. In confessing to the federal crimes Cohen also implicated his client, Trump, by saying he committed these crimes at the behest of a candidate for federal office.

As a New York Times analysis put it, Cohens statement in court carried echoes of President Richard M. Nixon, who was named an unindicted co-conspirator in the special prosecutors investigation of Watergate.

Because of the seriousness of Cohens plea, the question wasnt if Trump and his surrogates would respond, but when.

Trump and his team reportedly spent hours working on a statement to attempt to clear Trumps name and reject the unindicted co-conspirator label. By the following morning, a messaging strategy seemed to coalesce.

As a professor of rhetoric and argumentation who is finishing a book about Trumps presidential campaign, I paid close attention to what Trumps camp decided to say in his defense.

Apologia an Ancient Greek term for the speech of self-defense can assume a few well-known forms. They include: denial (I didnt do it), differentiation (It wasnt what you think, it was something else), bolstering (Important people approve of what I did, so you should, too) and transcendence (Lets focus on what is really important here the big picture).

Trumps apologia has been primarily based upon denial and differentiation. He wants to persuade Americans that he did nothing wrong and that things are not what they appear to be.

To buttress this, his defenders relied upon what rhetoric scholars call points of stasis, which are questions that debaters since Aristotle have used to develop their most persuasive appeals.

Points of stasis deal with four questions: What happened? How should we understand it? How should we value it? What should we do about it?

In coming up with answers to these questions, debaters will attempt to frame what happened, influence how we should understand it, dictate how we should value it and outline what should be done about it.

When paired with apologia, points of stasis can be used to try to wiggle out of difficult situations. They can help an audience understand new information from the perspective of your side and mitigate damaging charges.

For example, Trumps lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, attempted to explain what happened when he released a statement denying that Trump was implicated at all in the Cohen matter. There is no allegation of any wrongdoing against the President in the governments charges against Mr. Cohen, it read, framing the events in a way that vindicated Trump from any wrongdoing.

But, you might wonder, if Trump wasnt specifically implicated in Cohens guilty plea, then how should we understand what happened? Didnt hush money still get paid to help the campaign?

To shape how observers might make sense of this, lawyer Alan Dershowitz, the author of the book The Case Against Impeaching Trump, appeared on CNN, Tucker Carlson Tonight and Fox and Friends to argue that everyone commits campaign finance violations and that campaign finance rules are incomprehensible anyway.

In other words, viewers should realize that this is something really common in politics an easy mistake to make that shouldnt be thought of as a big deal.

According to Dershowitz, campaign finance violations are trivial infractions like jaywalking. And if hush money were paid, while its not exactly noble behavior, it isnt a crime. Little value, he seems to be saying, should attributed to the crimes if they were committed at all.

Furthermore, theres not much that can even be done about it, they say. A sitting president cannot be indicted (and therefore audiences and courts do not get to judge). And even if it were crime, it isnt a high crime, so it isnt an impeachable offense.

To recap the points of stasis:

  • What happened? Theres no allegation of wrongdoing by the president in the governments charges.
  • How should we understand Cohens guilty plea? Its a mere campaign finance violation, which everyone commits.
  • What sort of stock should we put into this crime? Its like jaywalking.
  • What if Trump paid hush money? Not great, but not illegal.
  • What can be done about it? Nothing. The president cant be indicted.

In the days since Cohens plea deal, these points of stasis have been repeated to shore up Trumps denial of wrongdoing and differentiate campaign finance violations from high crimes and misdemeanors, the phrase in the Constitution that describes impeachable offenses.

Of course, this isnt playing out in a courtroom or in the Athenian Agora. Instead, its playing out in the court of public opinion. Impeachment is a political process, and it seems to hinge on whether enough voters get fully behind the effort.

In this sense, one bolstering strategy may resound the most. Trumps base is so firmly in his camp, some of his backers in the media have argued, that this news wont hurt Trumps political standing.

It doesnt really matter if he is an unindicted co-conspirator, they say because his supporters wont care.

Trump may have enough support for now to stay afloat. How long he can tread water is unclear.

Jennifer Mercieca, Associate Professor of Communication, Texas A&M University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.