Cheap Talk

September 30, 2017
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On Saturday The New York Times published the story that Donald Trump Jr together with Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner met in Trump Tower with a Russian Lawyer.  That was basically the entire content of the story in terms of new information being reported.  The rest of the story was recap of allegations about collusion together with some hint-hint dot connecting.

Junior responded by acknowledging the meeting and saying that it was about Russian adoptions.

The Times followed up on Sunday by reporting that this was in fact a lie, that Junior was promised information about Hillary Clinton that would be valuable for his campaign.

Junior acknowledged this, but minimized the significance of the meeting through a number of statements.

Finally the Times was set to publish accounts of an email thread that apparently showed that Trump was told in advance that this was an effort by the Russian government to provide information that would help his father get elected.

Before they could do that Junior published the actual emails himself.

Someone, either the Times’ source, or the Times journalists themselves had all of that information at the very beginning.  And rather than do the normal journalistic thing of reporting what they knew they released it in little bits.

The first bit was barely meaningful to every reader in the world except for Trump, Manafort Kushner.  It was a message that we have some information that you might not like and it was a challenge to find the right response.

Their dilemma was that first and foremost they don’t want to admit to have colluded with the Russian government.  But, if that was going to be proven anyway they would rather not first lie about it and then have to admit it.

They tried lying.  The Times released another little piece which did two things.  First it proved they lied, and second it proved that they have more information than they had in their original story.

Now Junior and Co. had to guess just how much information.  They guessed wrong.  Indeed the Times had all of the information and in the end Junior was forced to admit what he could have admitted at the beginning and along the way he was caught in two lies.  Indeed in the end he pre-empted the Times revelation by revealing everything himself.

This is a very clever tactic by journalists who are technically doing the journalistically-ethical thing of publishing only the truth,  but being strategic about it by publishing in little pieces to maximize the damage, probably because the Trump administration has made them the enemy.

Note how truly powerful this tactic is once it has been deployed.  The next time the Times has some but not all of the information that would prove guilt they will again release a little bit of it.  Trump will have to guess again how much they are holding back.  Trump will have to trade off the probability of being caught in another lie (if The Times truly has all the dirt) versus credible denial (if they don’t).  If used optimally, this bluffing tactic can get the subject to pre-emptively confess (i.e. to fold to extent the poker analogy) even when the damaging evidence isn’t there.

(One could write a simple dynamic Bayesian persuasion model to calculate the Times’ optimal probability of bluffing in order to maximize the probability that the subject’s best-response is to pre-emptively confess.)

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