WASHINGTON - In Washington, it's the art of the parse.
Everyone splits rhetorical hairs from time to time, but politicians are especially adept at trying to dance their way out of a bind with carefully crafted explanations.
Now, here comes Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who met with the Russian ambassador twice last year, maintaining that he was truthful when he told a Senate committee during his January confirmation hearing that he “did not have communications with the Russians.” He was an adviser to Donald Trump's campaign at the time.
Sessions said at a news conference Thursday that his statement was “honest and correct as I understood it at the time” but that he'd be sending senators a clarification of his remarks.
He said his answer was truthful because the question had focused on Trump campaign contacts with the Russians, while he had met with the ambassador in his role as a senator, not as a Trump supporter.
“In retrospect, I should have slowed down and said, ‘But I did meet one Russian official a couple of times,” Sessions added as he announced that he would recuse himself from any investigation related to the campaign. The announcement came after Democrats and Republicans had called for Session to recuse himself, and some Democrats pressed for his resignation.
“It definitely was extremely misleading to say the least,” said Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, one of those seeking Sessions' resignation.
Sessions' insistence that he “did not have communications with the Russians,” even though he did, bore a striking resemblance to another famous denial in political history: the televised response of former President Bill Clinton after allegations surfaced of an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
“I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” Clinton declared. But turns out, that depended on the definition of sexual relations.
Clinton, who had attracted the unwanted nickname of “Slick Willie” for his well-known abilities to talk himself out of a jam, also argued that he wasn't lying when he claimed, “There is no relationship.” He later said that was the truth because their relationship was over by the time he spoke.
As Clinton explained it: “It depends upon what the meaning of the word `is' is.”
Rutgers professor David Greenberg, author of the book “Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency,” thinks Sessions' statements are a more serious matter than Clinton's.
“Clinton was parsing; Sessions is retroactively trying to change what he said,” Greenberg said in an email. “The former is something that everyone does, especially but not only in politics. The latter is perhaps also a human instinct but is complicated by the oath to be truthful.''
The book “The Stupidest Things Ever Said by Politicians,” by Ross Petras and Kathryn Petras, offers plenty of other eyebrow-raising examples of hair splitting.
— David Dinkins, before he was New York mayor, answered accusations that he had failed to pay his taxes by saying: “I haven't committed a crime. What I did was fail to comply with the law.”
— Richard Allen, national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, offered this clarification about cash he was given by Japanese journalists for arranging an interview with Nancy Reagan: “I didn't accept it. I received it.”
— Clinton administration Justice Department nominee Bill Lann Lee insisted the term “forced busing” was a misnomer because school districts “do not force children to ride a bus, but only to arrive on time at their assigned schools.”
More recently, Republicans tied themselves in verbal knots last year trying to keep their distance from candidate Trump without completely abandoning their party's nominee.
— New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte's solution was to promise to vote for Trump and support him, but not endorse him.
“There's actually a big distinction,” Ayotte insisted. “Everyone gets a vote. I do, too. And an endorsement is when you are campaigning with someone.”
Ayotte lost by a razor-thin margin to Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a University of Pennsylvania professor specializing in political communication, says that where many politicians use highly precise words to protect themselves, Trump uses the opposite strategy of being “notoriously imprecise.”
In both cases, though, the speakers may intend for listeners to hear something different from what they actually said.
Jamieson says people hold speakers to different standards, depending on their backgrounds and the setting. They may cut Trump some slack because he comes from the business world, she said, but not Sessions.
“You've been a lawyer, a prosecutor, a senator, you're in a hearing, speaking under oath, you speak with precision,” she said. “When you engage in ambiguity, it's calculated.”