President Trump on Sunday accused the Wall Street Journal of misquoting him invidiously in an interview published last Thursday. The newspaper attributed the following phrase to Trump: “I probably have a very good relationship with Kim Jung Un.” In subsequent days this quotation was frequently repeated in the media because it suggests that the president cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality, a picture that many pundits find entertaining.
The phrase suggests Trump is delusional, because he and the North Korean dictator are not known to have any personal relationship at all, while their public relationship is notoriously contentious; so what “very good relationship” could Trump possibly be talking about? Also paradoxical is the qualifier “probably,” since under most circumstances one would know, without resort to guesswork, how to describe one’s own personal relationships. Was Trump describing a fantasy relationship as if it were real?
But the president has now claimed that WSJ misquoted him and that audio exists to prove it. He says his actual words were “I’d probably have a very good relationship with Kim Jung Un,” a future conditional (would have) in which the modal “would” is contracted to just a /d/ sound. Trump’s phrase, unlike the one WSJ attributed to him, makes perfect sense.
I listened to the audio posted online by WSJ and the White House, and I am certain that President Trump is right. Not that a /d/ sound is unmistakably audible; it isn’t. But neither is “I probably.” Here is a simple explanation of what the recording reveals to the naked ear. In speaking we produce a long /I/ sound with open mouth and tongue resting flat, a /p/ with lips together and tongue also resting flat; the transition between /I/ and /p/ is very smooth, so pronouncing “I probably” normally entails no interruption of vocalization. A /d/ is produced by touching the tip of the tongue to the front ridge of the palate, and transition from this position to /p/, where the tongue rests flat, is not smooth. In the audio my ear detects a very brief catch in Trump’s voice as he begins saying “probably,” and this would appear to be the trace of his tongue’s movement to and from his palate. If the interviewer had been Jimmy Breslin, he jus’ mighda caughdit onneh fly.
On the basis of this alone one might concede that the WSJ team’s error was blameless purely as a matter of transcription of sound. But the conditional syntax of Trump’s phrase is indicated in other ways. Even without the audio Trump’s descriptor “probably” makes little sense in the phrase quoted in the newspaper, while it is perfectly functional in a condition, and in normal conversation, this difference alone would contribute to disambiguation in favor of Trump’s version. The recording also gives us the tempo and intonation of the whole sentence, where the phrase about Kim Jung Un is preceded by phrases about Trump’s relationships with Chinese President Xi and Japanese Prime Minister Abe. While the first two are enunciated as straightforward statements of fact, the phrase about Kim Jung Un moves suddenly into a much higher pitch and is drawn out in a way that suggests contemplation of something imaginary.
But the conclusive evidence in favor of Trump’s account comes immediately after the disputed phrase. In the WSJ transcript one reads the following:
I have relationships with people, I think you people are surprised.
But on the WSJ audio recording (which runs a few seconds longer than the audio released by the White House), Trump clearly says this:
I would—I have relationships with people, I think you people are surprised.
Trump unmistakably begins with “I would,” pauses, and then starts over with “I have.” The “I would” is a fragment of a construction in the conditional mood that Trump chose not to complete. The only thing it can indicate is an aborted continuation of the immediately preceding phrase, as if Trump were about to say something further about Kim, and then extemporaneously switched to a different point he wanted to make. (When Trump then says “I have relationships with people,” he is speaking about his relationships in general, a capability for relationships including but not limited to those already established.) The fragmentary conditional mood removes any doubt that Trump thought his immediately preceding phrase was conditional.
The transcriber appropriately omitted the fragment of the aborted phrase, but in doing so he or she also removed a clue that would have indicated the transcription error in the previous phrase. Even so, when the WSJ interview team received the transcript they should have realized that the Kim Jung Un sentence was defective and at least required confirmation by the interviewee, if only because in composing the article they themselves selected it as the most prominent takeaway and the first statement quoted. Confirming an interviewee’s statements must have legitimate precedent, because major media organizations often conduct interviews with non-native speakers, where accurate and meaningful statements cannot always be gleaned from a transcript of imperfectly spoken English. But I point to non-native speakers only as an uncontroversial example of a problem that can arise with any speaker in an extemporaneous interview. You’d expect WSJ to have a way to deal with it. In this case, they should have checked back with President Trump before concluding that he had said something delusional. It appears the paper had one of those “too good to check” moments so common these days.
As of this writing WSJ stands by their reporting. They shouldn’t. They were careless at best, and they should admit it.
Bullying POTUS in the Moral Playground
Now some think President Trump is being petty in complaining about a misquotation that was off by merely the touch of a tongue-tip to the palate. But the case has much to teach us about the perils of quoting a person’s words to the public at large without confirmation. As a transcription of sounds into written words the WSJ quotation was about 99 percent accurate, yet it was still seriously misleading. So think of how much misrepresentation could be caused by quotations even less accurate than that! Say, as much as 90 percent accurate; not to mention as little as 25 percent. When Columbia law professor Dan Richman gave New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt leaked snippets from Jim Comey’s recollections of conversations with the president that may each have lasted as much as an hour, the quotations published in the Times omitted at least 99 percent of the context from which they were drawn, context relevant to understanding the quoted phrases’ meaning. And yet those (alleged) quotations have been treated by the media and some members of Congress as in themselves conclusive evidence of a constitutional crisis. Even granting that the fragmentary quotations are accurate in some measure, it does not follow at all that that this accuracy confirms the transactions of which the quotations are treated as virtually dispositive proof.
Somewhere Sen. McCarthy is smiling and asking who’s without shame now.
The WSJ audiogate demonstrates that anybody who engages a public figure in extemporaneous conversation about a matter of public controversy is able, if so disposed, to embarrass that person later by reporting quotations that may be 75 percent accurate or more, yet 90 percent misleading, and 100 percent scandalous to partisans who stand by waiting for material of scandal to arrive. Those like Jim Comey and Dick Durbin who make a deliberate practice of such confidence-breaching are not occupying the moral “high ground” as they pretend. What they and their collaborators are occupying is the moral playground. They all should be sent to the principal, which in this country is still the people, aided, where appropriate, by our laws.