President Trump has a preferred technique for deflecting a question he doesn’t want to answer. It was borrowed from the Russians.
Asked about something, he’ll answer the question with a question: “What about something else?”
The technique was prominently observed in his jaw-dropping press conference in Trump Tower the weekend after the Charlottesville domestic-terror attack, when he criticized “both sides” for violence surrounding a white-supremacist rally. When asked whether the city’s statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee should remain standing, Trump replied, “George Washington was a slave owner,” he said. “Are we going to take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson?”
What is whataboutism?
Also called “whataboutism,” the tactic is about establishing false moral equivalence between two things that aren’t really comparable. It was a propaganda tactic favored by Soviets during the Cold War, when they would answer questions about their bad behavior by asking indignantly about something America was doing.
“Not only does it help to deflect your original argument but it also throws you off balance,” Alexey Kovalev, a Russian journalist, told the Washington Post. “You’re expecting to be in a civilized argument that doesn’t use cheap tricks like that. You are playing chess and your opponent — while making a lousy move — he just punches you on the nose.”
For example, when Vladimir Putin was asked about Russia’s annexation of Crimea, he brought up the U.S. annexation of Texas.
One of Trump’s most infamous uses of the tactic came when Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly asked him about his support for Vladimir Putin. “Putin’s a killer,” O’Reilly said.
“There are a lot of killers,” Trump replied. “We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think — our country’s so innocent?”
Trump has increasingly used whataboutism to defend himself against the compounding criticisms about his administration and his personal behavior. Besides Charlottesville, the apex (or nadir) may have come when, after months of rejecting the intelligence community’s assertions that there was Russian meddling in the 2016 election, the president tweeted on June 26, “The real story is that President Obama did NOTHING after being informed in August about Russian meddling.”
“Moral relativism — ‘whataboutism’ — has always been a favorite weapon of illiberal regimes,” the Russian chess champion and activist Garry Kasparov told the Columbia Journalism Review last March. “For a U.S. president to employ it against his own country is tragic.”