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Trump’s ‘It’s Just My Opinion’ Defense Is Just More Gaslighting
His latest rhetorical gesture won’t save him from a criminal conviction.
AFTER MORE THAN TWO YEARS of flatly asserting that he won the 2020 election, Donald Trump has this month trimmed his sails. Sort of. Anticipating being in the dock for criminal election interference, Trump is trying what John Ehrlichman, the convicted Nixon White House consigliere, famously called a “modified, limited hang out.”
Or perhaps this is just another instance of Trump’s doing what the late philosopher Harry Frankfurt labeled “bullshitting”—where the “goal is not to report facts” but “rather, to shape the beliefs and attitudes of his listeners in a certain way.”
The former president is now adding a few qualifying words to his post-2020 election Big Lie. “I’m telling them that, in my opinion, the election was rigged,” Trump said last week of the January 2, 2021, phone call in which he urged Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, to “find” just enough votes to overturn Trump’s deficit.
“I believe I won that election by many, many votes, many, many hundreds of thousands of votes,” Trump said. “That’s what I think.”
“That’s my opinion, and it’s a strong opinion,” he added. “And I think it’s borne out by the facts, and we’ll see that.”
Facts can be verified; opinions, in contrast, are neither true nor false. They are just expressions of feelings or beliefs. They tell us about a person’s state of mind.
That’s why Trump, presumably on the advice of the lawyers preparing him for his upcoming criminal trials, is reframing what he said and did in the aftermath of the 2020 election.
But the “it was just my opinion” defense won’t work in court. And it signals doubt and weakness from a person who reportedly hates showing signs of vulnerability and who as a child was taught never to show it.
Funny that Trump didn’t think of inserting qualifiers about how he was simply expressing his opinions when he spoke at his rally on January 6th shortly before the mob overran the U.S. Capitol.
There he ad libbed these inflammatory lines, not in his written script: “When you catch somebody in a fraud, you’re allowed to go by very different rules.” Note that he didn’t add, But that’s just my opinion, take it or leave it.
He also said, “We fight like hell, and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” Isn’t it odd that Trump didn’t also say, Of course, that’s just what I think, and anybody can make a mistake.
Remember in June 2021 when the former president had his aides leak to the public that he told them that he won the election and he’d be reinstated in office in August that year? He didn’t have them include the phrase, But that’s merely his very strong opinion.
OVER NEARLY THREE YEARS, Trump has gaslighted the country with unqualified, supposedly factual statements that the election was stolen from him. He’s sent to the ocean floor confidence in our democracy among Republicans. Years into President Joe Biden’s term, 70 percent of Republicans still doubt the legitimacy of the 2020 election.
With such mistrust metastasized so broadly in the electorate, the risk to the stability of the republic cannot be overstated.
In such conditions, there is a very real possibility of violence. We’ve seen it before, and not just on January 6th. Last Thursday, in Provo, Utah, FBI agents were acting on court-authorized arrest and search warrants when Craig D. Robertson pointed a gun at them and did not respond to their commands. They were forced to shoot him. He died at the scene.
Robertson reportedly believed Trump’s Big Lie. He apparently accepted that what Trump said was more than mere opinion. He had previously made serious threats against President Biden, who was on his way to Utah the day the FBI went to Robertson’s house. Robertson had also threatened law enforcement officials prosecuting Trump.
As more individuals with fringe political views or suffering from mental disturbances hear Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, more violence is almost sure to occur—whether or not he inserts “I think” before his fraudulent election claims.
TRUMP HAS LONG KNOWN his Big Lie was just that. In December 2020, both Attorney General William Barr and his successor, Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, told Trump that he lost. His campaign hired two research companies to discover evidence of enough ballot fraud to change the election outcome; they found nothing but stray voter misconduct.
Then there’s this: Alyssa Farah Griffin, Trump’s former White House communications director, testified to the House January 6th Committee that before Trump left the White House, she heard him express his frustration with his defeat: “Can you believe I lost to this effing guy?”
Likewise, Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the committee that after the election, while Trump was still in office, he acknowledged to Milley, “Yeah, we lost, we need to let that issue go to the next guy.” Milley said Trump was referring to President Biden.
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But those admissions have not stopped private citizen Trump from spouting, day after day, what Kellyanne Conway, his political strategist, infamously called “alternative facts.”
Hannah Arendt understood the danger of such falsehood to our political life. In a 1971 essay about “lying in politics” following the Pentagon Papers scandal, she wrote that “the whole texture of facts in which we spend our daily lives . . . is always in danger of being perforated by single lies or torn to shreds by the organized lying of groups, nations, or classes.”
Arendt’s biographer, Samantha Rose Hill, has written that she understood that “the side effect of the lies and the propaganda is the destruction of the sense by which we can orient ourselves in the world.” That is precisely what Trump gaslighting us with his Big Lie was about.
It’s precisely what he’s at again in asserting, for purposes of his criminal defense, that every false claim he has made about the 2020 election is just his opinion.
He may have confused his upcoming prosecutions with his civil trial brought by E. Jean Carroll for defamation. In such cases, claiming that what one said was mere opinion ordinarily is a good defense for a person accused of saying something defamatory. But Trump can’t really rely on an “opinion” defense in his upcoming second trial after categorically denying that he knew Carroll, and after he’s already lost one virtually identical case in which the judge said Trump was proven to have raped her.
In the criminal context, his claim it was all just opinion also isn’t going to cut it. As Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a former constitutional law professor, has written, in the eyes of the law, “it doesn’t matter what Trump believed.” He has already been charged federally with using unlawful means to overturn the election. If that’s proven in a Washington, D.C. federal courtroom or a state court in Georgia (where his fourth indictment is expected), it’s beside the point what impulses or thoughts passed in and out of Trump’s head.
So in the trials relating to the Big Lie and the attempt to interfere with official processes and certification of the 2020 election, alternative facts or suddenly trumped-up claims about opinions won’t save him.
In fact, Trump’s change of tune will only have him looking even more like the untrustworthy person he is—the kind that juries do not hesitate to convict.