Trump’s impeachment may hang on a point of grammar

Comey_Screen_Shot_2017_06_08_at_11.05.09_AM.0
James Comey speaking to the Senate Intelligence Committee on 8 June 2017

“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

Donald Trump spoke these words to James Comey, former Director of the FBI, at a private meeting in the Oval Office.  As Alex Ward of vox.com states, these are the most important words of Comey’s testimony today to the House Intelligence Committee.  Comey felt that these were a direction to him by the President of the United States.

Primary school children in England taking the new tests in grammar, punctuation and spelling will have been taught that a command always includes a verb in the imperative mood.  In everyday social life, however, the context of an utterance helps to determine its meaning. Any bedraggled six-year-old knows that a parent or teacher exclaiming “Look at the state of you!” is not merely giving a command.   And yet this exclamation (as it seems to me) is defined as a command in the current tests.

Questioning James Comey today, Senator James Risch sought to deflect Comey’s view that Trump had given him a direction:

Sen. James Risch

He did not direct you to let it go?

James Comey

Not in his words, no.

Sen. James Risch

He did not order you to let it go?

James Comey

Again, those words are not an order.

From a limited view of language separate from context, Trump’s words do not include an imperative and are not an order.  However, Comey felt that they had an imperative meaning if not an imperative form.  Pressed by Risch as to whether, as the former director of the FBI, he knew of any case where a person had been charged with a criminal offence for hoping for an outcome, Comey replied:

This is a president of the United States with me alone saying I hope this. I took it as, this is what he wants me to do. I didn’t obey that, but that’s the way I took it.

Comey is drawing attention to the context of Trump’s words, and in particular to the power relationship between himself and his interlocutor.  He is implicitly making a grammatical analysis of language as a social semiotic – as deriving much of its meaning from the context of use.

It remains to be seen whether the Senate Intelligence Committee will accept this more adequate socio-linguistic analysis of the President’s words.

 

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