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On March 16th, Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired former Deputy F.B.I. Director, Andrew McCabe, just a few days before he would retire and become eligible for a full pension. McCabe was in charge of the investigations into both the Trump campaign, and Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. Since those investigations, President Donald Trump and he have been in a bitter back-and-forth. The president has lashed out at him on Twitter while McCabe has contradicted the White House on numerous television appearances.
So now that McCabe is gone, who won the public opinion game? Here’s my persuasion scorecard on the latest events:
President Trump: A+
Trump had been using powerful visuals when he’s tweeted about McCabe going back as far as December. However, his tweet after McCabe’s firing had significant persuasive firepower.
The president uses effective visuals and branding — both send a clear message. You may not agree with him but his tweet was loaded with words that are impactful and stay in our minds — FIRED…Sanctimonious…choirboy…lies and corruption…highest levels of the FBI. Everything he wants us to think of McCabe is conveyed in this, succinctly and successfully. But there is more.
If you are wondering what the first part of the tweet achieves, the answer is a lot. Remember, he wrote the book — Trump: The Art of The Deal — and is crazy good at persuading and negotiating.
The president first introduces us to the rank-and-file FBI men and women — who we all view as patriotic — and then makes us compare them to people who were fired and are alleged leakers (James Comey and McCabe).
The greatest power of the contrast principle is that we don’t readily pick up on it – and once executed on us – it is virtually impossible to avoid its influence. Did you notice it when you first read the tweet?
With this simple move, Trump makes McCabe appear more corrupt to us than he otherwise would.
The statement had average persuasion and too much legalese. It lists lots of reasons in the hope that he makes his case. The problem is that when you try to influence people directly with reasoning you primarily trigger argumentation in them. It is also too long. Outside of the Beltway, few will read it.
His response in the interview with the Times was framed is the worst possible way if you are trying to associate innocence with your name after you are fired. McCabe said:
“The idea that I was dishonest is just wrong. This is part of an effort to discredit me as a witness.”
If you are on McCabe’s side this appears fine but if he is trying to change people who are on the fence, it only makes things worse. It is filled with negatives that actually make our brains associate him with them unfavorably. The main message our subconscious minds pick up of McCabe is — he was dishonest…wrong…discredit. To influence effectively, always use positive framing to make your case.
A more persuasive statement would have been:
In these matters, I was always honest. This is part of an effort to challenge my credibility as a witness.
Or at least say:
The idea that I did not tell the truth is just not right. This is part of an effort to challenge my credibility as a witness.
See the difference? Here honesty, credibility, truth, being right, and the visual power of a challenger would have been linked to McCabe.
Separately, what could Trump do to get more of the public on his side now?
The president should make an announcement that he has asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions to look into possible ways in which McCabe can still get his pension benefits. There is likely enough legal wiggle room to get this to happen. McCabe’s lawyers are probably good enough to get his pension back anyway.
Disclaimer: I’m not commenting on who is actually right — just who persuaded better. I don’t have enough inside information to judge the former. You will find some interesting commentary on the McCabe firing at lawfareblog.com tweeted out by CNN’s Jake Tapper.
Shaun Mendonsa, PhD is an influencing expert and pharmaceutical development leader. He writes on the topics of influence and persuasion, and develops next generation drugs in human pharma by advising international pharmaceutical CROs and CMOs. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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