Trump's 'four corners' offense an effective strategy for 2020

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: 'I will not let Iran have nuclear weapons' Rocket attack hits Baghdad's Green Zone amid escalating tensions: reports Buttigieg on Trump tweets: 'I don't care' MORE and members of his administration are stonewalling on the issue of special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE's report and subsequent congressional investigations. They are employing a political version of Dean Smith’s “four corners” offense — a frequently effective offensive strategy for stalling in basketball. This conclusion is unmistakable in view of Trump’s rhetoric and its effects.

Although none of us can be certain about the intent of a politician’s words or their effects, we have clues — pieces of a puzzle that can be put together through rhetorical analysis. Scrutinizing what is said, when and how it is said, and what isn’t said enables rhetorical analysts to make informed inferences about intent and effect.

How so?

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First, the evidence mounts to suggest that Trump’s refusal to allow former White House counsel Don McGahn and others to provide documents, testify and comply with subpoenas is a deliberate and calculated attempt to play a four corners offense. The same is true of Trump’s incessant mantra: “No collusion, no obstruction.” Early on, he preemptively controlled this narrative, disseminating it through his surrogates, on Fox News and via relentless Twitter posts.

Second, the president seems to believe this tactic will force the Mueller issue into the courts, thus making resolution prior to the 2020 election extremely unlikely. Like the four corners offense, he will run out the clock.

While many legal observers contend that Trump eventually will lose these legal battles, there is ample reason to believe this could be Trump’s most effective rhetorical strategy to remain in office, especially given the support of Republicans in Congress and voter fatigue with and apparent disinterest in the Mueller report.

Third, Tuesday’s declaration by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBolton emerges as flashpoint in GOP debate on Iran On The Money: Treasury rejects Dem subpoena for Trump tax returns | Companies warn trade war about to hit consumers | Congress, White House to launch budget talks next week | Trump gets deal to lift steel tariffs on Mexico, Canada Schumer calls on McConnell to hold vote on Equality Act MORE (R-Ky.) that the Mueller matter is “case closed,” echoing the same sentiment previously expressed by Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamTrump, Europe increasingly at odds on Iran Trump: Anonymous news sources are 'bulls---' Trump: 'Good chance' Dems give immigration 'win' after Pelosi called White House plan 'dead on arrival' MORE (R-S.C.), is further indication that this rhetorical strategy may work. As Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiPelosi receives John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award Dems walk Trump trade tightrope Tlaib calls on Amash to join impeachment resolution MORE (D-Calif.) candidly observed Tuesday, “Trump is goading us [Democrats] to impeach him.” 

Regardless of whether one insists that the Democrats, because of the duty to discharge their oversight function, have an obligation to impeach (as a necessary response to both the Mueller findings and the president’s refusal to comply with almost every Congressional request, which itself reasonably could be interpreted as “obstruction”), surely we can see why Trump’s stonewalling might very well work.

As always, this poses an enormous challenge for Democrats who need to devise an effective rhetorical strategy to counter the president. Thus far, there doesn’t seem to be one, and those opposed to Trump should worry about whether the Democrats will be successful in holding him accountable and whether he will be voted out in 2020.

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Some Democrats — though certainly not all — appear to have decided to walk a fine line, continuing relentless investigations and delaying impeachment until, as Pelosi says, it becomes “self-imposed” by the president — all while passing legislation benefiting Americans.

The rhetorical advantage of this approach is that it allows Democrats to fulfill their constitutionally prescribed oversight function, giving the president enough rope to hang himself. They then can claim, “We didn’t act in a partisan manner by rushing to impeachment hearings — Trump’s actions forced the choice.”

Time will tell whether the Democrats have the rhetorical discipline to adopt a consistent and coherent strategy, as Trump clearly has done. 

This is far more than the typical partisan concern expressed by those opposed to an incumbent president’s policies. It is about larger democratic principles, the rule of law and the Constitution’s system of checks and balances. 

Behind closed doors, Republican senators and representatives must have angst over the same issues. However, to date, they remain loyal to party, pragmatically believing that holding power — and what comes with that (saving their own positions, court picks, deregulation, etc.) — is more important than standing up for principle and what is right for the nation.

Will the average American see through what Trump and the Republicans are doing? Will they be able to separate the substance and form of the president’s discourse? It’s doubtful. We live at a time when many of us are locked into our existing opinions and receive most information from members of our own tribe.

If nothing else, this issue highlights the fact that today’s political events — and the polarized responses they evoke — constitute a real test of the great experiment created by our Constitutional framers.

Richard Cherwitz is Ernest S. Sharpe Centennial Professor in the Moody College of Communication’s Department of Rhetoric and Writing at University of Texas, Austin, and a founding director of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium, a nationally-acclaimed cross-disciplinary initiative designed to leverage knowledge for social good by educating “citizen-scholars.”