'Facts don't matter': How Trump uses one of Putin's favorite propaganda tools

Donald Trump
Donald Trump speaks before bestowing the nation’s highest
military honor, the Medal of Honor, to retired Army medic James
McCloughan during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House,
Monday, July 31, 2017, at Washington.

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

  • President Donald Trump and his allies frequently use
    “whataboutism,” an age-old Russian propaganda tool.
  • Experts say it allows the user to deflect criticism by
    drawing false equivalencies and shifting the
  • At its core, the main purpose of “whataboutism” is to
    “destroy the democratic values of the truth,” one analyst

A few weeks ago, President Donald Trump took to Twitter to
slam Attorney General Jeff Sessions and special counsel Robert
Mueller as the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation over
whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow in 2016 gained

So many people are asking why isn’t the A.G. or Special
Council looking at the many Hillary Clinton or Comey crimes.
33,000 e-mails deleted?” he tweeted

“…What about all of the Clinton ties to Russia, including
Podesta Company, Uranium deal, Russian Reset, big dollar speeches
etc.,” he added

It was just one of many instances where the president has
taken criticism levied against him and pointed it in someone
else’s direction. In doing so, Trump is utilizing one of
Russia’s oldest propaganda tools, which the Soviet
Union used when its socialism was compared to other countries
both inside the USSR and by the rest of the world. 

Whenever the USSR was criticized for its crimes or flaws,
defenders routinely pointed to grievances committed by
capitalist or fascist countries, said Michael David-Fox, a
professor at Georgetown University and an expert on modern Russia
and the USSR. 

Russia frequently used the technique, dubbed “whataboutism”
by The Economist’s Edward
in 2008, during the Cold War, and it was most
recently revitalized by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The logic behind it went something like this: Russia
isn’t that bad — what about all the misdeeds other
countries have committed? 

When Russia faced criticism from the West over
Putin’s crackdown on protesters in 2012 after the election,
the Kremlin shot back: “What about the United Kingdom? Breaking
the law during public gatherings there could lead to a fine of
5,800 pounds sterling or even prison.”

FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the Navy Day parade in St. Petersburg, Russia, July 30, 2017. REUTERS/Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool/File Photo
President Vladimir Putin attends the Navy Day parade in St.


Another classic example occurred more recently when NBC host
Megyn Kelly interviewed Putin in June. In response to questions
about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, Putin replied:
“Put your finger anywhere on a map of the world, and everywhere
you will hear complaints that American officials are interfering
in internal election processes.”

“Whataboutism” appears to serve Putin by enabling him to take the
position that it’s not America’s role to “lecture Russia on
democracy when it has had such a poor track record of
establishing them on its own watch,” said Vadim Nikitin, a Russia
analyst and freelance journalist. Most of
all, Putin’s finger-pointing at the US’ own foibles is
done in an effort to force others to “accept all sides as morally
flawed,” he added. 

But as the 2016 campaign kicked off, Putin gained a
critical boost from an unlikely source: Republican presidential
candidate Donald Trump.

During a 2015 interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” co-host Joe
Scarborough pressed Trump about Putin’s crackdowns.  

“He kills journalists that don’t agree with him,”
Scarborough said. 

“Well, I think that our country does plenty of killing too,
Joe,” Trump replied, without addressing the specific criticism
aimed at Putin. 

Trump doubled down on his defense of the Russian
strongman after taking office in January. 

During an interview with then-Fox News host Bill O’Reilly shortly
after being sworn in, Trump said he respected Putin. 

O’Reilly pushed back: “Putin’s a killer.” 

“There are a lot of killers,” Trump replied. “We have a lot
of killers. What, you think our country is so innocent?”

It was a shocking pronouncement from the leader of a
country that had, up until that point, taken a firm stance
against Putin’s documented attacks on human rights and basic

More importantly, in making those
statements, Trump appeared to be doing the Russian
leader’s job for him by echoing his own talking

An effort to force others to ‘accept all sides as morally flawed’

In theory, whataboutism’s biggest strength is that it
allows the user to call out hypocrisy, Nikitin


But it’s unclear whether the tactic has proven that useful
to Trump — as his administration continues to grapple with
internal turmoil as well as external threats like North Korea,
Trump’s approval ratings have cratered, and he’s also lost support from
his base.  

Whataboutism’s effectiveness, as with any propaganda,
“depends on the packaging of the particular message, the context,
and the receptivity of the audience,” David-Fox

Trump Putin
President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald


When Trump and his loyalists turn to “whataboutism,” they wield
it to shift the narrative when deflecting criticism over a number
of issues, like Trump’s divisive rhetoric and, most notably,
the ongoing controversy over whether the Trump campaign colluded
with Moscow to tilt the 2016 election in his favor. 

That tendency was most recently on display last Sunday,
when “This Week” host George Stephanopoulos pressed Trump’s senior
, Kellyanne Conway, on the White House’s shifting
explanations on the role Trump played in crafting a statement
about Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting last June with a Russian

At first, “the White House and the president’s lawyer said
he wasn’t involved at all,” Stephanopoulos said to Conway. “They
didn’t tell the truth.” 

“Well, let’s talk about telling the truth,” Conway replied,
going on to criticize former President Barack Obama. “Let’s talk
about a president looking Americans in the eye, who are still
suffering eight years later, who were lied to. If you like your
plan, you can keep your plan. If you like your doctor, you can
keep your doctor.”

She continued: “Benghazi happened because of a video. Go
tell the families of those four innocent Americans … who were
slaughtered in Benghazi that that lie mattered.”

Stephanopoulos quickly called Conway out for
pointing to Obama’s actions in response to questions about
the Trump administration’s questionable credibility. 

“Kellyanne, you’re simply changing the subject,”
Stephanopoulos said, to which Conway replied, “That is a subject.
Let’s talk about credibility that impacts people.” 

Trump himself has used the tool on numerous
occasions — and he’s put a unique spin on it as well, often using
the very words used to criticize him and turning them on
his accusers. 

james comey
FBI Director James Comey testifies before a Senate Intelligence
Committee hearing on “Russian Federation Efforts to Interfere in
the 2016 U.S. Elections” on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. June
8, 2017.


Shortly after he fired former FBI director James Comey —
who was spearheading the FBI’s investigation into the Trump
campaign and former national security adviser Michael Flynn — in
May, several Democratic lawmakers
accused Trump
of obstructing justice. 

It was a theory that quickly picked up steam, so much so
that Comey himself was asked during his testimony before the
Senate Intelligence Committee in June whether he felt Trump had
obstructed justice by firing him. Comey declined to provide an

Three days after the former FBI director’s testimony, Trump
tweeted, “The
Democrats have no message, not on economics, not on taxes, not on
jobs, not on failing #Obamacare. They are only

Later that month, as questions about whether members of the
Trump campaign colluded with Moscow continued to
 and more of Trump’s associates began lawyering up,
Trump tweeted, “Hillary
Clinton colluded with the Democratic Party in order to beat Crazy
Bernie Sanders. Is she allowed to so collude? Unfair to

‘You’re projecting onto others what you are afraid

But given his thin skin and tendency to deflect criticism,
Trump appears to have shed light on one of the key dangers
“whataboutism” can pose to those who use it.  

A method in which “you’re always blaming someone else,” often
reflects back on the accuser, David-Fox said. 

Trump “routinely blames others for the exact missteps of
which he is accused, even in advance, or preemptively, when
something negative is forthcoming,” he added. “But if you do this
too transparently, it becomes clear that you’re projecting onto
others what you are afraid of.” 

Trump leveled sharp criticism against his predecessor in
June, saying in a pair of tweets, “The
reason that President Obama did NOTHING about Russia after being
notified by the CIA of meddling is that he expected Clinton would
win … and did not want to ‘rock the boat.’ He didn’t ‘choke,’ he
colluded or obstructed, and it did the Dems and Crooked Hillary
no good.” 

Dmitry Dubrovsky, a Russian scholar at Columbia University,
characterized “whataboutism” and Trump’s use of it as “very

Donald Trump
Donald Trump points towards GOP Senators during their luncheon,
Wednesday, July 19, 2017, in the State Dinning Room of the White
House in Washington.

AP Photo/Pablo
Martinez Monsivais

“That’s why the populist is speaking in this language,”
Dubrovsky told Mother Jones.
“Everyone understands it quite well. The strategy is to avoid any
argument and to sound like you speak from your soul.”

Dubrovsky also noted that Trump and Putin are not
alone in their embrace of “whataboutism,” and pointed to the
far-right French nationalist, Marine Le Pen, and proponents
of Brexit as other examples.

However, Russia was a “pioneer of this global shift in
narrative,” Dubrovsky added.

There’s no shortage of instances during which Trump turned
to “whataboutism” to draw false equivalences that sought to
shift the narrative away from what was being

Shortly after his administration rolled out its
controversial travel ban in January, for instance, Trump’s
first line of
against criticism was that Obama had done the same

“My policy is similar to what President Obama did in 2011
when he banned visas for refugees from Iraq for six months,”
Trump said in a statement released shortly after he
signed an executive order authorizing the travel ban. “The
seven countries named in the Executive Order are the same
countries previously identified by the Obama administration as
sources of terror.”

The two policies, of course, were nothing alike. Among
other things, Politifact noted
that Obama’s policy had a much narrower focus, was not
a ban, and was undertaken in response to a specific

In another example, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions
became a subject of scrutiny in March following revelations that
he had not disclosed his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the
US, Trump again pointed at the Obama White House.

“Just out: The same Russian Ambassador that met Jeff
Sessions visited the Obama White House 22 times, and 4 times last
year alone,” he tweeted

‘Facts don’t matter’

Trump’s use of “whataboutism” — though
uncharted territory for American media — was nothing new for
Russian journalists. 

Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir

AP Photo/Dmitry

Alexey Kovalev, a Russian reporter who writes about
propaganda, fake news, and Russia’s state media, noticed the
parallels between Trump and Putin and warned American
shortly before he took office that Trump may
adopt Putin’s favorite propaganda tool. 

“Facts don’t matter,” Kovalev said, explaining what Putin’s
relationship with the media was like. If “you’re raising a
serious issue, [he will] respond with a vague, non-committal
statement,” Kovalev said.

“‘Mr. President, what about these horrible human rights
abuses in our country?’ ‘Thank you, Miss. This is indeed a very
serious issue. Everybody must respect the law. And by the way,
don’t human rights abuses happen in other countries as well?'”
Kovalev said, laying out a hypothetical question-and-answer
scenario between Putin and a reporter. 

He elaborated on the phenomenon in an interview with USA
, saying:

“The thing is that when you think it’s your mission to make him
[Putin] admit a lie, or an inconsistency in his previous
statements, when you try to point out those inconsistences or
catch him red-handed lying, there’s no point because he’ll evade
your question, he knows that he can just drown you in meaningless
factoids or false moral equivalencies…”

Indeed, it seems clear that at its core, the purpose of
“whataboutism” is “to destroy the democratic values of the
truth,” Dubrovsky said. 



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