Mainstream fact checker Snopes.com on Sept. 28, 2016 (tweeted out on its four-year anniversary) published a fact check on whether Donald Trump said not paying federal taxes made him smart. The fact check exemplifies one of the semantic games mainstream fact checkers end up playing: Interpreting claims to fit a narrative instead of giving them a natural contextual interpretation.
The Snopes fact checker, Bethania Palma, ended up dedicating most of the fact check to a rabbit trail. Palma took it as plain that Trump said he was smart for not paying taxes. Then Palma mainly wrote about her opinion that Trump shortly after denied what he had supposedly plainly said. Palma’s funhouse focus came through early, in the deck material of the fact check.
If Trump said not paying taxes makes him smart, then he said it regardless of whether he later denies it. There’s really no need for a fact checker to focus on the supposed denial.
What Did Trump Say?
Trump said “That makes me smart.” Trump said those words as a matter of fact.
Snopes said that Trump’s “that” was clearly not paying federal taxes.
But was “That makes me smart” a clear admission that Trump did not pay federal taxes?
The transcript (via Politico) shows Trump’s claim as an isolated comment in response to a statement from the Democratic Party’s 2016 presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton.
CLINTON: Third, we don’t know all of his business dealings, but we have been told through investigative reporting that he owes about $650 million to Wall Street and foreign banks. Or maybe he doesn’t want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he’s paid nothing in federal taxes, because the only years that anybody’s ever seen were a couple of years when he had to turn them over to state authorities when he was trying to get a casino license, and they showed he didn’t pay any federal income tax.
TRUMP: That makes me smart. [Interruption]
In a post-debate interview, CNN’s Dana Bash asked Trump to clarify what he meant:
BASH: And my question for you is, first of all, it sounds like you admitted that you hadn’t paid federal taxes and that that was smart. Is that what you meant to say?
TRUMP: No, I didn’t say that at all. I mean, if they [say] I didn’t, I mean, it doesn’t matter. I will say this, I hate the way our government spends our taxes. Because they are wasting our money. They don’t know what they’re doing, they’re running it so poorly, whether it’s spent in Iraq or wherever they’re spending it, they are wasting our money. So, I hate the way our government spends.
The Snopes fact checker twist
Palma wrongly tried to use Trump’s explanation to fuel her claim Trump denied what he had plainly done:
But when questioned by CNN’s Dana Bash immediately after the debate, Trump disclaimed that he said his paying no federal income taxes made him smart, quickly pivoting off the subject onto a complain about government spending
Palma’s interpretation fuels the narrative of her fact check, but it ignores the central thrust of Trump’s explanation. Trump said his intent was not to admit not paying federal income taxes. Rather, it was to point out that the claim by his attackers carries no clout even if true. It’s not necessarily wrong not to pay income taxes.
Instead of Trump saying “his paying of no federal income taxes made him smart,” as Palma said, Trump was saying he did not admit he paid no federal income taxes. Had Bash had gone further with her questioning, Trump may well have gotten around to saying that legally not paying federal income taxes counts as smart, no matter who does it.
Whose semantic contortions?
Apparently confident in her reasoning, Palma discounted alternative explanations as requiring “semantic contorting”:
To hold that Trump hadn’t actually said what he had just been recorded saying would require a good deal of semantic contorting, such as claiming that Trump was describing his not releasing his tax returns (rather than his not paying tax) as “smart,” or that Trump meant he hadn’t said that he never paid any federal taxes (even if that was the case in at least some years).SNOPES.COM
Rather, in response to Bash, Trump did not directly address whether it was smart to legally avoid paying taxes. He focused instead on the assumption that his debate comment counted as an admission he had not paid federal taxes.
This understanding requires no semantic contortions, contrary to Palma’s prediction. The semantic contortion came from Palma, who assumed that “That makes me smart” in response to Clinton served as Trump’s clear admission that he did not pay federal income taxes.
Bash’s question implicitly acknowledged the ambiguity of Trump’s comment. Palma, as a fact checker, ought to have used even greater caution.
Fact checkers should not build arguments relying on such thin reeds for support.
It’s very likely Trump thinks it smart to pay as little federal income tax as the law allows. It’s far less likely Trump’s “That makes me smart” meant anything other than that.