It has been more than two weeks since The Washington Post led other media outlets in reporting President Trump shared classified material with Russian guests in the Oval Office. This news highlights the immense general importance of the president’s words. More specifically, it is a moment to understand that words do not just “mean” something, but “matter” as something. This analysis should then lead us to conclude that because the president’s words matter — because they are acts on citizens, because they are acts of citizenship – we should hold the president accountable to standards we share.
First, let’s remind ourselves what happened: The New York Times, Buzzfeed, and CNN, among others, confirmed the original blockbuster May 15 report in The Post that Trump told his Russian guests that intelligence assets had reports ISIS was trying to use laptop computers to bring down airplanes. Three administrations officials offered a much parsed denial that noted “sources and methods” were not revealed, but did not dispute the thrust of the report.
Then the president took to Twitter the next day to further the chaos. The president tweeted: “As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining…. to terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.”
This seemed to confirm the Post report, if not also undercut the statements of his top officials.
The legal question is settled. The President has “broad authority to declassify government secrets, making it unlikely that his disclosures broke the law,” according to the Post.
For those interested in the procedural question The New York Times offer a good primer on how information gets classified. Interestingly, The Times notes that because Trump administration officials convinced the Post to initially withhold the details of what Trump said, the information was still then considered classified.
So the question is, as CNN asked, if the president shares it, is it no longer classified?
Questions like these are not new to rhetoric experts. The relationship between speech and action – or in laymen’s terms, whether a declaration actually declares the action – has been debated rather significantly for decades.
The Rhetorical Debate
A good starting point for that debate is British philosopher J.L. Austin who laid out parameters of what has become known as “speech act” theory in his 1962 book How to Do Things with Words. In short, Austin claimed that when we speak, we do something with words. We are not merely giving information to those who are listening; we perform actions. This was in contrast to the prevailing idea at the time – and one still honored today, mainly by people outside rhetoric — that our language is merely a transmission device for ideas. In other words, words don’t matter, what is important is what we say through them.
Interestingly, Trump hints at the concept in his tweets. He wrote that all he did was “share” “facts,” ignoring the action that sharing constituted. In fact, he was aiming to justify that act because it had received so many aghast responses as the story broke the night before.
The canonical example of Austin’s theory is a minister who says “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” The minister usually says before this that they have been “vested” with power by the state to make this pronouncement. And in so doing — in saying “I pronounce” — the couple is wedded, in the state’s eyes, because the person it invested with the authority to make such a pronouncement has made it.
In this theory, by stating as president the classified information in a private (though not secure by government standards) setting, Trump de-classified the information. He spoke and acted simultaneously. Or, when he spoke, “it” happened with “it” being the act of de-classification. To paraphrase Trump, he alone has this immense authority by the power invested in him by our government.
Or in the words of language expert Conor Neill, such a statement by Trump — known to other scholars as “performatives” — “changed the state of the world.”
This is why so many journalists and others like Citizen Critics dissect the words the president speaks. What he says are not merely opinions or words that hold ideas. The president’s words do something. They signal, they nod, but they also name; they pronounce.
Those words do not just mean something, but do something — they “matter.” And they matter because they are effects upon citizens. They affect us and our relationship to him, each other, and to the general American ideals we share. And this is why we as citizens can and should hold up his statements to standards, standards solidified over time through much conversation in contexts like the office of the president that prescribe behaviors with words, behaviors as words.
This community standard of language — this social context of language — is what keeps authoritarianism at bay. While the president in our democracy can act in such a manner, in regard to classified information, his actions as words remain in the context of his hearers, the citizens. We have a say – we get to act – on those words.
And any response that suggests he did not “mean” what he said erodes not only the president’s ability to tell us what he means (especially when he and his spokespeople differ), but also his ability to do future things with words. We just won’t believe him — eroding the power of the President. In other words, a debate about meaning – who gets to say what the president meant – is less important compared to the deed done and the effect made.
Furthermore, Trump’s lies, exaggerations, and claims without evidence – and now this revelation – not only further weaken his credibility but, also show us more clearly how he understands language. Any further de-classifying of information in such a manner suggests that not only Trump can’t be trusted with information (the information was from another nation), but also that he does not believe his words “matter” – they only are vehicles for his meanings. And if he continues to believe that only he can tell us what he means, his claims of authority are disempowered by the idea that Austin made famous: words have consequences.
One example of this lack of authority was clear from the beginning of the saga: officials convinced the Post to withhold details. This makes it seem that even White House aides did not think Trump actually did what he did – they either convinced themselves that he didn’t say what he said (perhaps trusting him not to say such a thing) or that he didn’t actually do what he did (again, trust comes into play). Now that Trump has done this, his words are suspect to his closest advisors. This is not good for the rest of us.
The authority of the presidency is grounded on the person’s ability to convince voters he can be trusted when he speaks. That trust is not merely about telling the truth. It is also about how they view what they say – is it mere talk or also action? For a president who ran on the claim that politicians are “all talk, no action,” this incident presents a serious obstacle to his presidency. When he acts in this manner it goes against his most central characteristic with voters: trust. If speech act theory teaches us anything, it is that words matter, they do not merely mean.