Here are three questions one might ask former V-P Joe Biden:
(1) Mr. Biden, after the election, will you be attending Trump’s inauguration?
(2) Mr. Biden, after the election, if you lose, will you be attending Trump’s inauguration?
(3) Mr. Biden, after the election, if you win, will you be attending Trump’s inauguration?
They vary only slightly, but they’re very different.
Number (1) has the flaw that litigators refer to as “assuming facts not in evidence.” It assumes that Pres. Trump will win. But no one knows what will happen in the future, so the question is flawed and unfair. Why should Mr. Biden assume that he will lose?
Number (2), on the other hand, does not assume any facts; it poses an explicitly hypothetical situation—“if you lose”—rather than making any assumption. Some people refuse to answer hypothetical questions, but they’re not inherently unfair.
Question number (3), unlike the other two, is completely nonsensical. If Mr. Biden wins, there won’t be any Trump inauguration.
Keeping those distinctions in mind, let’s turn to the latest hold-the-presses, hair-on-fire brouhaha that has exploded over what Trump said or didn’t say about “a peaceful transferal of power after the election.” This past Wednesday, Pres. Trump and a reporter had the following exchange (which begins at 8:39 in the C-SPAN video):
Reporter: Mr. President, real quickly, win, lose or draw in this election, will you commit here today for a peaceful transferal of power after the election?. . . Will you commit to making sure that there is a peaceful transferal of power after the election?
Trump: We’re going to have to see what happens. . . Get rid of the [mail-in] ballots. . . there won’t be a transfer, frankly, there’ll be a continuation[.]
A multitude of media outlets have trumpeted the foregoing as proof that, in the words of the Associated Press headline, “Trump won’t commit to peaceful transfer of power if he loses.” (The same AP story, with the same headline, appeared in the Times of Israel.) CNN opened its “analysis” of the story with these words: “President Donald Trump’s refusal on Wednesday to guarantee a peaceful transfer of power if he loses to Joe Biden in November is leading America towards a dark place during a year of incendiary political tensions.” The lead sentence in The Hill’s story said this: “President Trump on Wednesday refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power should he lose the election in November[.]” NBC News’ lead paragraph was this: “President Donald Trump was asked Wednesday whether he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose this fall to Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. The president declined to do so.”
The only problem with all these stories is that they’re false: Pres. Trump never refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses, because he was never asked that question. The reporter first asked, “win, lose or draw,” would Pres. Trump commit to a peaceful transfer of power; then, a few seconds later, he asked whether Pres. Trump would commit to a peaceful transferal of power, without the “win, lose or draw” introduction.
Consider first the “win, lose or draw” version. If you watch and listen to the video, it’s difficult to understand that phrase when it is uttered. I listened several times before catching it. The video cuts to Pres. Trump as that phrase is uttered, and he gestures across his mouth and chin to indicate, I think, that the reporter’s mask makes it difficult to understand what was just said. (In the video, when the next question is asked, the president openly complains that a mask makes it difficult to hear the question.)
If you delete the “win, lose or draw” introduction which Trump may not have understood, the question posed by the reporter is flawed and unfair because it assumes an unknowable fact: that Biden wins and Trump loses. Why should Pres. Trump entertain that reporter’s assumption? Would Mr. Biden be willing to say today that he will attend the Trump inauguration in January? Of course not. He might be willing to say that, if he loses, he would attend, but that is a different question.
If you add in the “win, lose or draw” phrase, things only get worse. One of the possibilities that phrase presents is that Pres. Trump will “win”. But this makes the question (like question (3) in the first paragraph above) nonsensical: There won’t be any meaningful “transferal of power” if the incumbent wins. How is Pres. Trump supposed to answer a question that asks him to entertain a nonsensical, irrational future circumstance?
The second time the reporter posed the question, there was no “win, lose or draw”. His question simply assumes Mr. Biden will win. Again, why would the president agree to entertain that assumption?
The answer that Pres. Trump provided—“We’re going to have to see what happens….—is a natural way of saying that Pres. Trump rejects the assumption that Mr. Biden will win. In fact, as he continues with his answer, the president explicitly affirms the possibility that “there won’t be a transfer…, there’ll be a continuation.” So, the president understood, even if the reporter did not, that the question was formulated improperly, in that it assumed a Biden victory.
It has by now undoubtedly become a never-Trump dogma that the president refused to commit to a peaceful transition if he loses, just as it is dogma that Trump asserted a moral equivalence between neo-Nazis and people opposed to racism. Both dogmas are false. What Pres. Trump refused to accept this past Wednesday was the unfair, unsupportable assumption that Mr. Biden will win. He never refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses, because he was never asked that question.