The rhetorical tactic is known as “whataboutism.” The Merriam-Webster definition is as good as any: “It is not merely the changing of a subject (‘What about the economy?’) to deflect away from an earlier subject as a political strategy; it’s essentially a reversal of accusation, arguing that an opponent is guilty of an offense just as egregious or worse than what the original party was accused of doing, however unconnected the offenses may be.”
In a New York Times piece a couple of years ago, Masha Gessen described it as an “old Soviet propaganda tool.”
And it’s one of Donald Trump’s favorites. Told that Vladimir Putin is a killer, Trump defended his Russian ally by asking, “There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country’s so innocent?” Asked about the white nationalists responsible for deadly violence in Charlottesville, the Republican president responded, “What about the alt-left?” When his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was sentenced to several years behind bars, Trump asked, “What about Comey and Crooked Hillary and all of the others?”
On Friday morning, Republican operative Roger Stone, a longtime Trump associate and adviser, was arrested by the FBI, which led the president to take his whataboutism in a literal direction over the weekend in a series of tweets.
“If Roger Stone was indicted for lying to Congress, what about the lying done by Comey, Brennan, Clapper, Lisa Page & lover, Baker and soooo many others? What about Hillary to FBI and her 33,000 deleted Emails? What about Lisa & Peter’s deleted texts & Wiener’s laptop? Much more!” […]
“CBS reports that in the Roger Stone indictment, data was ‘released during the 2016 Election to damage Hillary Clinton.’ Oh really! What about the Fake and Unverified ‘Dossier,’ a total phony conjob, that was paid for by Crooked Hillary to damage me and the Trump Campaign?” […]
“What about all of the one sided Fake Media coverage (collusion with Crooked H?) that I had to endure during my very successful presidential campaign. What about the now revealed bias by Facebook and many others. Roger Stone didn’t even work for me anywhere near the Election!”
Right off the bat, let’s note the degree to which Trump’s enthusiastic embrace of whataboutism incorporates one of its most important aspects: he made no effort to defend Roger Stone specifically. The GOP operative is facing charges of obstruction, giving false statements, and witness tampering, and at no point did the president suggest his longtime ally is innocent.
Instead, Trump mounted a defense by trying to change the subject, pointing to his perceived enemies, whom he’d also like to see face criminal charges.
Indeed, the president seems to have become a little hysterical about it, casually accusing quite a few people of felonies without any evidence, concocting a vast conspiracy involving Hillary Clinton and independent news organizations, falsely claiming that Facebook’s anti-conservative bias has been “revealed,” and even suggesting the Steele dossier was released ahead of the 2016 election (it wasn’t).
The larger question, however, is what Trump considers the point of his little tantrum. If he’s using Stone’s arrest as a pretense to lash out wildly at people he doesn’t like, then the president’s furious tweets will likely be inconsequential and easily overlooked.
If, however, this was Trump’s way of laying the groundwork for a possible Stone pardon, these tweets are very much worth keeping in mind as the legal process moves forward.