How to do (presidential) things with words


Donald Trump’s home has been raided by the FBI. While there has been no official announcement of the object of the raid, most are assuming that the government is looking for official documents that the former president may have taken with him from the White House. And particular concern has been raised about possible secret (classified) documents. This raises an interesting legal question, because it is generally accepted that the president has broad latitude to classify and declassify any information.

One of the great texts of modern Anglo-American philosophy of language is J L Austin’s How to Do Things with Words. The title is brilliant, of course, and it compelled me to pick it up off a friend’s bookshelf and read it before I’d ever heard of it or knew how significant it was. As someone who had immersed himself as a teenager in the early twentieth century mathematico-logical approach to Austin’s simple point was a revelation: Language is not solely (or even mainly) about making statements about the world that can be judged on their truth value. (Wittgenstein had already led me into this terrain, but Austin is much more concrete, and not so oracular.)

Austin’s point is that there is a whole class of “speech acts”: Verbal utterances that are not true or false, but actions. Examples are

  • Making a promise;
  • Naming something (e.g., a ship christening, one of Austin’s examples);
  • Issuing a challenge, bet, or threat;
  • Marrying (meaning here, performing the ceremony, though also one of the parties making marriage vows);
  • Making an order;
  • Handing down a legal ruling.

Crucial to Austin’s analysis is that we need different categories for describing the success of such utterances. Not truth, but appropriateness. Basically, there needs to be an accepted conventional procedure for conducting this act at a certain time, with agreement that the procedure has a certain effect, and such that the role of uttering the words has an established role in the procedure. And this procedure must have been carried out in the correct circumstances by appropriate people, and in the correct manner.

Which brings us back to the sticky-fingered former president. One of Trump’s lackeys is insisting that Trump can’t have broken the law regarding classified information, because he declassified all of it before he stole it. (Regardless of whether the information officially classified, he presumably still contravened the Presidential Records Act by taking the government documents, but that seems like a more politically venial crime than mishandling classified information.)

“The White House counsel failed to generate the paperwork to change the classification markings, but that doesn’t mean the information wasn’t declassified,” Kash Patel, a former staffer for Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) and, briefly, a Pentagon employee, told Breitbart in May.

“I was there with President Trump when he said ‘We are declassifying this information,’” Patel added.

There is an established procedure for declassifying documents, which may be invoked by a president, but it is more complicated than the president simply declaring “I declassify thee”. (For one thing, how would you define the blast radius of such an order? Has the president declassified all information held by the government? Everything written on papers in the general direction the president is gesturing at? What about an encrypted laptop in the same room?) “Per a 2009 executive order, markings on classified material need to be updated to reflect changes in their status.”

Patel went on to suggest that Trump had been betrayed, but that his order to “declassify” should retain legal force.

“It’s petty bureaucracy at its finest, government simpletons not following a president’s orders to have them marked ‘declassified,’” Patel said. “The president has unilateral authority to declassify documents — anything in government. He exercised it here in full.”

In Austin’s framework, there is a conventional procedure being invoked here, and the president is the appropriate person to invoke it. But the procedure was not carried out in the correct manner. It is rather as though an eager couple in a hurry appears in church. They haven’t registered their marriage (28 days required by law in England), and they don’t have time for a full ceremony. The priest says “I declare you married” and sends them on their way.

Trump’s lackey treats this as a mere matter of “petty bureaucracy”, but the need to exercise power through formal procedures is an important check on autocracy. In the Third Reich the Führer’s will was paramount, even if it had not been expressed. Germans were supposed to “work toward the Führer”. Requiring explicit instructions in specific forms creates a modicum of transparency and accountability.

There’s a certain formality two-step here that is immensely corrosive of public responsibility. You start with the observation, the president has the right to do X if he chooses. It’s a plenary power, potentially dangerous, so it is hemmed in by various complications and procedures. In particular, he needs to explicitly invoke the power. Which you can’t do in the required specificity to an unlimited extent. And then you start to say, well, it’s his power, he could exercise it any time he wants, so it’s mere pettifogging to insist that he actually have done that rigmarole of invoking, and pretty soon everyone is just working toward the leader, guessing what the law currently is.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: