False choices

Rhetoric referee: Heads I win, tails I win

Even before special prosecutor Robert Mueller filed his report on the two-year investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and claims of obstruction by President Trump, Democrats were calling for immediate release of the full, unredacted report and all supporting documents and testimony.


Attorney General William Barr

Attorney General William Barr released a four-page summary and promised to release a redacted copy of the full report by mid-April, but Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said that was condescending and arrogant and that the documents should be released to Congress immediately so members could make up their own minds.

Republicans say Barr should be given time to review the 400-page report and redact information that will affect national security or identify individuals who have not been charged with any crime. This is the legal standard for redaction of documents from such investigations.


Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler

Today the House Judiciary Committee voted on party lines to authorize subpoenas for the full report, and supporting documents. Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-New York, said he will meet with Barr before serving the subpoenas, but will do so within days if he isn’t satisfied.

This is an example of a false choice, much like the false dilemmas and false dichotomies of the Groundhog Day scenario. A false choice assumes there are only two possible outcomes — in this case, either don’t release the report or release the report in its entirety.

To imply that the White House would not release the report at all is also a straw man. The president and attorney general have already both said the report should be released; there’s no controversy on that score although it serves their opponents’ objectives to imply that’s the intent.

The other choice — to release it in its entirety — is probably impossible for legal reasons. But given the false choice, failure to do so will be taken as evidence of obstruction.

It’s impossible to defeat this circular reasoning. Either choice will give the Democrats ammunition leading up to the 2020 national election.

Rhetoric Referee: False dilemmas


In celebration of Groundhog Day, let’s look at false dilemmas and false dichotomies.

Although it was sunny in Connecticut, Punxsutawney Phil, the nation’s most celebrated groundhog, failed to see his shadow in Pennsylvania, thus predicting an early spring. (If he sees it, the prediction is for six more weeks of winter.)

This is an example of a false dichotomy: There’s really only one outcome. Either way, spring will come at the same time, at the vernal equinox on March 20. That’s 46 days away, or about six and a half weeks. So six weeks is, by definition, an early spring.

A false dilemma is an apparent choice between two options, when actually there are others. The one that’s making the rounds now that 2020 presidential candidates are emerging: “Vote for an independent, elect Trump.” A third-party candidate might, and probably will, draw voters from both parties and thus could swing an election either way.