Who is Lying About "Shithole"?

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It was recently reported that President Trump referred to some immigrants from Africa as arriving from “shithole” countries. The backlash was swift, severe, and global. Then came the denials from both Trump and others.

These denials raise a question that is key in politics in general: how do we know who is lying? As a debate coach with a Ph.D. in Interpersonal Communication, I’m trained in spotting lies. To figure out who is lying in a given situation, three factors are most informative: source credibility, odd language choices, and the phenomena of “I don’t recall.”

Source Credibility:

Anyone who has spent time on a jury knows that source credibility is one of the key factors a trial attorney examines when deposing a witness or conducting cross examination. Who should we believe? Is this person a proven liar? The question isn’t as simple as it seems, though. Everyone lies. Every day. So if everyone lies, the more pertinent question relates to the relevancy of the lies: Has the person lied about similar topics, or in similar ways?

In the case of Trump, even though he purportedly lies often, his most recent spat with The Wall Street Journal is the most relevant case because it happened at about the same time as his “shithole” comment (which exhibits a trend) and the circumstances are similar. In both instances, Trump was reported to have said something which he now denies. The WSJ quotes Trump as saying he (currently) has a good relationship with North Korea leader Kim Jung Un. After the story was published, the president disputed contractions and verb tense.

In this case, there are recordings. After reading the transcript and listening to the audio, it seems clear that the Wall Street Journal was correct. Not only does it sound like he says “I” (current tense) and not “I’d,” (future tense) in the audiotape, but the statement in question coincides with the context of his next sentence, “I have relationships with people. I think you people are surprised.” These sentences indicate a thought about the present, not a longing for the future (which Trump claims was the case). While President Trump obviously has a terrible relationship with Kim Jung Un, he often boasts in conversation about things that are untrue, so there is no reason to believe Trump over the WSJ in this instance.

On the other side of the “shithole” comment dispute is Senator Dick Durbin. Some conservatives were quick to remind people that Durbin isn’t credible, disputing his claim from several years back that a GOP leader told then President Obama that he “cannot even stand to look at you.” However, Durbin’s supposed falsehood is less relevant than Trump’s for two reasons. First, it was years ago (remember, we lie every day, so to reach so far back in the past is a stretch). Second, Durbin was only relaying information he was given from another source. In other words, the attack on Senator Durbin’s credibility is less analogous, less relevant, and poorly proven. Also, Lindsey Graham confirmed Durbin’s side of the story.

Credibility verdict: In this case, Trump has less credibility due to recent lies. Therefore, I believe Senator Durbin when he says he heard Trump refer to African nations as “shithole” places.

Odd language choices:

How someone talks about the event in question also matters for determining the truth. Senator David Perdue said Durbin “misrepresented” Trump. This statement might seem like a minor quibble. However, the usage of the word “misrepresent” in everyday vernacular is different than it is here. “Misrepresent” does not typically mean a person is lying about the facts, but instead means they are not representing those facts with the proper intent from the source or with the proper context of the interaction. I find it unusual that Senator Perdue would use the phrase “misrepresent” instead of just leaving his statement with, “Durbin is wrong, Trump did not say that.” Stephanopoulos asked, “You’re saying flat out, definitively, the president did not say those words?” David Perdue answered, “I’m saying that this is a gross misrepresentation…” And when followed up, “So what did the president say,” Perdue evaded the question entirely. The evasion of a direct answer and the misrepresentation are fishy.

Then there is this damming phrase form Senator Tom Cotton, who was also in the meeting: “I did not hear derogatory comments about individuals or persons.” Remember, the phrase being questioned was about places of origin, not explicitly people. Cotton is waffling, trying to get by on a minor distinction, and his language choices are less direct than what I’d expect if he were being completely honest. Plus, Durbin in his interview is quite clear what the president said. No waffling. No hedging. The way he speaks suggests he fully believes in his specific version of events.

Language Verdict: The Republican Senators vagueness and lack of specificity makes me trust Durbin more.

“I don’t recall.”:

Does anyone really believe it when we hear politicians say “I cannot recall?” People, not just politicians, tend to use this phrase because it’s impossible to disprove. People do sometimes honestly forget. However, in this case, several Republicans who were in the meeting claimed they could not recall if Trump said “shithole” even when they were asked within 24 hours of the meeting. Another person in attendance was the DHS secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, who also could not remember if the president said “shithole” when referring to places of origin of predominately black people. This evasion didn’t pass the smell test from Fox News’ Chris Wallace. The fact is, when we hear someone say, “I don’t recall,” we usually think they are lying. And for good reason.

But then it gets even worse. In my life, I’ve never heard of a joint statement “not recalling” something. The joint statement from Cotton and Perdue is perhaps the silliest statement imaginable. If they are making a joint statement, then either they both heard Trump say “shithole” or they both did not. To both “not recall” pretends as if they both have the same brain, the same auditory system, and the same level of attention to detail in a meeting. That’s obviously not the case.

The final twist in “not recalling” is that suddenly, after all the outrage, now both Perdue and Cotton do recall. Trump did not say “shithole” according to Perdue, and while still not clear on his memory, Cotton is certain that was not Trump’s sentiment. Either one of two things happened. They honestly went from not remembering to remembering (in Trump’s favor), or they were persuaded by outside factors to change their story.

Overall verdict: “I don’t recall” with all of its iterations is the most damning of the three points in the “shithole” case, and all three tests lead me to the same conclusion. President Trump absolutely said “shithole” when referring to places of origin in Africa.

While this test of honesty was pretty easy to figure out (most people drew the same conclusion), the techniques for detecting lies are what I hope you take away from this example. It’s not effective to shout that someone lied in a partisan environment where the loudest shouter tends to win. Rather, we need techniques that can be applied to politicians on both sides. In politics today, we can use all the help we can get.

Dr. Todd Graham is the Director of Debate at Southern Illinois University. His debate teams have won five national championships and Todd has most recently won the 2016 “Debate Coach of the Year” award, his record-setting third such honor. Dr. Graham also serves as the CNN.com debate expert for the presidential debates. You can follow him on Facebook