Empty Words: Pompeo, Policy, and Presidential Speech Acts

“I want you to think about the suggestion that what the President says is not the policy of the United States.” – Bob Menendez

Trump and Putin Helsinki Summit
Credit: www.kremlin.ru

On Wednesday, July 25, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. During the hearing, Republican and Democratic senators questioned Pompeo about Trump’s comments after Helsinki, expressing doubt about the White House’s strategy and requesting information on the secret conversation between Trump and Putin. Just over a week prior, Trump and Putin met in a private one-on-one meeting in Finland, in which many hoped Trump would finally hold Putin accountable for Russian interference in the 2016 election. After the meeting, Trump did not publicly condemn Russian interference, though U.S. intelligence agencies have confirmed that Russia did meddle in our election. When a reporter explicitly asked Trump who he believed—his own intelligence officials or Putin—Trump refused to answer definitively one way or the other. “I will say this,” Trump said. “I don’t see any reason why it would be [Russia].

This, as one might imagine, is a troubling statement for any president to make, and has led many to wonder just what promises and concessions Trump made to Putin during their closed-door meeting. Has U.S. policy toward Russia changed? The President’s deferential comments have led many to wonder. Because, as the President of the United States, what Trump promises to a foreign leader has the force of action; his words help define and clarify U.S. policy to the world. Or do they?

This seems to be in doubt, because when senators asked Mike Pompeo what the President said during his one-on-one meeting, the Secretary of State did not tell them what promises Trump did or did not make. Instead, Pompeo repeatedly evaded the question by listing off current U.S. policy, implying that senators should look the official policy decisions of the Administration rather than the President’s words. As if these were two separate things.

At the end of the 3-hour-long hearing, Senator Bob Menendez made the above comment, calling Pompeo out on his refusal to admit that the President’s statements are U.S. policy. Pompeo immediately backtracked, claiming he has misspoke, but the question remains: Is what the President says U.S. policy? Or is this true only in certain circumstances? If so, then how, as Senator Chris Murphy asked, “do I know the difference between a presidential statement that is not a policy and a statement that is?”

Historically, U.S. presidents have been pretty careful to stay within the lines of official U.S. policy when they speak. Reporter Julie Hirschfeld Davis noted, “They understand that…any little gradation…from what the policy is is gonna be seized upon by the public, by Congress, by allies around the world as a big deal…” U.S. presidents’ words, their promises and commitments and condemnations, can have the weight of action on behalf of the country. When a president declares war, those words constitute the declaration. They make things happen.

Doing Things with Words

How to Do Things with Words by J.L. Austin

There’s a term for this type of performative speech in linguistics: speech acts. Speech acts are utterances that perform an action. They do not just describe an action; the act of speaking performs the action. One, for example, can resign from a position by saying “I would like to resign” or “I am turning in my two weeks’ notice.” When you say this, your statement itself constitutes the act of resigning. The same is true when you make a promise, take a bet, or offer an apology. 

Of course, you can do so jokingly or without the proper authority to follow through; however, in the right circumstances, to say that you promise is to perform the act of promising.

Philosopher J.L. Austin first introduced the idea of speech acts, which he called performative utterances, in the 1950s. At the time, many philosophers saw language as primarily descriptive or declarative. Statements, in this popular view, served to state a fact or describe something, whether truthfully or falsely. In How to Do Things with Words, a collection of Austin’s lectures, Austin debunks this narrow conception of language, providing examples of utterances that do much more than describe reality: for example, naming a ship or taking a marriage vow:

“In these examples it seems clear that to utter the sentence (in, of course, the appropriate circumstances) is not to describe my doing of what I should be said in so uttering to be doing or to state that I am doing it: it is to do it.”

We do this every day, but it’s kind of an amazing thing. As linguist John Searle puts it, language not only gives us the power to “communicate complex thoughts, but…to create a kind of reality…We have a capacity to create a reality by representing that reality as existing.” An executive, for example, can adjourn a meeting by saying it’s adjourned. In these instances, we are shaping the world around us with our words, albeit often in very small ways. The words we say have power not just to describe our experience or desires, but to make things happen.

Which brings us back to the question underpinning Mike Pompeo’s hearing this week: Do the President’s declarations and promises actually make things happen? Or are his words empty of performative force?

Who Calls the Ball?

Austin notes that for a speech act to take place, you must not only say the words—you must also have the authority and be in the correct circumstances to perform the action. This is common sense. If I try to declare sanctions on Russia, no one will take me seriously. I do not have the authority to perform that speech act; my words alone are not sufficient to make it so.

This is the crux of the debate over Trump’s words vs. policy. Either the time and place are right and Trump has the authority to declare U.S. policy—make promises, declare sanctions, condemn foreign interference in our elections—or the correct circumstances or authority are lacking, and his words do not have the force of action.

It seems obvious that Trump does, indeed, have the authority to make promises and other speech acts on behalf of the United States, at least in certain circumstances. When pressed, Mike Pompeo was quick to affirm that “the president calls the ball. His statements are, in fact, policy.” And most Americans assume that the President has the authority to speak on behalf of the United States, to take action through his speech, in the appropriate circumstances.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

Non-Americans think so too. As Senator Chris Murphy said during Pompeo’s hearing, “We focus on words from the President because our allies and our adversaries listen to those words and they calibrate their actions based upon those words.”

It seems clear that Trump, as president, has the authority to act on behalf of the nation. But in what circumstances? Normally, one would think that a meeting with a foreign leader, like Vladimir Putin, or a press conference directly afterward would count as appropriate circumstances. At the Helsinki Summit, Trump represented the United States in an official capacity to a foreign nation. Surely, his words in this setting would have performative force. Yet when asked if the United States’ stances on Russia had changed, based on the President’s deferential language toward Putin and failure to condemn his actions, Pompeo just referenced exciting U.S. policy, implying that whatever the President said would not affect policy. If these circumstances are not sufficient for the President to enact U.S. policy, what are?

This Administration has not provided a clear answer to this question. White House representatives imply that the rules have changed by constantly adjusting, reinterpreting, and deflecting comments about what the President says. What he says and what the Administration does are not the same, though his staff pretend that they are. This is problematic: Without a clear set of rules, how can we (or our allies or adversaries) know when the President’s words have the force of action? And how do we know when they are just hot air?

In his hearing, Mike Pompeo didn’t provide satisfactory guidelines for when the President has the authority to make declarations, promises, or other speech acts on behalf of the United States. The President clearly thinks that he does, yet experience suggests otherwise. The White House continually walks back what he says, and so does Trump himself. So, while Pompeo claims that the President “calls the ball,” we know that saying this doesn’t necessarily make it so.

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