Watergate-Era ‘Non-Denial Denial’ Is Back In Fashion

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Adjunct Professor Joel Cohen co-authored an op-ed about the use of non-denial denial statements since the Watergate scandal.

It’s back in full force. The non-denial denial. It is the kind of statement that seems clear and direct in countering allegations, but on careful review turns out not to say much at all. This kind of statement leaves wiggle room, meaning it wouldn’t be explicitly false if the allegations being denied are in fact true.

The phrase is credited to Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, who coined the term as the White House responded to allegations about the Watergate break-in in the early 1970s.

Concrete examples of the past: “I am not a crook,” said Richard Nixon.

Or take President Bill Clinton: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” It depends on what you consider “sexual relations,” doesn’t it?

And so we bring it to the present day in the form of Roy Moore. His “responses” to innumerable allegations of sexual misconduct with minors and others have been classic (and even predictable): The allegations were “unsubstantiated,” ”unproven” and “fake.” In other words, he said nothing. He also, in an interview with Sean Hannity, left open the possibility that, as the women alleged, he had in fact molested them, saying he did not “generally” date girls 15 years younger than him, and adding “I’m not going to dispute anything but I don’t remember anything like that.”

Then, when Hannity finally put the wood to him, Moore issued an unequivocal statement: “I adamantly deny the allegations of Leigh Corfman and Beverly Nelson, did not date underage girls, and have taken steps to begin a civil action for defamation.” Which led to more questions and potential evidence.

 

Most recently, Moore flat out denied the women’s allegations of sexual misconduct, saying: “They’re not only untrue, but they have no evidence to support them.” And with Roy Moore having taken his denial up a notch, President Trump decided to whole-heartedly support Moore’s candidacy for the Senate — saying “If you look at what is really going on and you look at all the things that have happened over the last 48 hours, he totally denies it. He says it didn’t happen. And you know, you have to listen to him also.”

 

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