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Trump and Conditionals

I am addicted to listening to American political news. I don’t know why. It started during Obama’s run for election in 2008 when Sarah Palin made blunder after blunder after blunder, but Donald Trump’s campaign, election, and imminent impeachment, have taken it to a completely new level. I know barely anything about NZ politics, but to me American politics is a fascinating sideshow of the spectacular, the absurd, and the linguistically fascinating. 

Yesterday something curious happened. I saw a headline on cnn.com containing a full quote by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. It held the notorious ‘had had’ structure that often surprises language learners, and which almost never appears in media headlines. How awkward. 


Two of my favourite topics had come together - English grammar and the disastrous Donald Trump presidency - and it felt like the good old old days of Trump’s 2016 election campaign. Back then I would do transcription and corpus analysis of speeches in real-time. Transfixed by his bizarre way of speaking, I'd count how many times he would use certain words and phrases, and at one point contemplated doing formal research and analysis in ’Trump discourse’, but ended up looking at code-switching. Perhaps today my shock at the way Trump speaks has worn off, but the transfixed horror remains. 

Except yesterday was different - this time the speaker was Mueller, and he generally spoke exceptionally well. What caught my eye was the way a conditional structure was reported in the media. All day yesterday various iterations and subtle alterations of the quote in headlines by various media outlets played in the back of my head like a curious little sideshow. I turned it this way and that in my mind, watching as the media first gawped over Mueller’s public statements, his first in 2 years, and then as they reported and misreported this quote as the central takeaway from the public statement: 'If we had had confidence that the President clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.'

Outlets like Vox, Rolling Stone, Fox, Vanity Fair, CNN, BBC, the Guardian, the Independent, MSNBC, all seemed to focus on this sentence. Vox called it 'the most important line in Wednesday's Robert Mueller statement.'


It was indeed a stunning event - the special counsel at his podium, wrapping up his investigation and announcing his retirement. From a political perspective, the ball is now firmly in Congress’ court and Mueller’s delicate and tactful pronouncements must surely lead to impeachment. According to Psychic Violetta, that is.

But despite generally agreeing on the political and legal implications of the statement for Trump, the outlets lacked consistency in their iteration, exchanging the 'had had' for 'had'

Rolling Stone:



Say, what? So why were some outlets reporting the structure as 'had', a second conditional, and some reporting it as 'had had', a third conditional. What, if any, difference does it make? Let’s look at the grammar.

We use the second conditional for unreal situations in the present or future. 

If Trump wasn’t president, Melania would probably divorce him.

If Ivanka wasn’t Donald’s daughter, she wouldn’t be part of the administration. 

if + simple past, would + present participle

The second conditional structure expresses the realities:

Trump is president and Melania remains married to him.

Ivanka is Donald’s daughter and she is part of the administration. 

We are able to consider hypothetical situations related to present conditions using this conditional.

By contrast, we employ the third conditional to describe unreal situations in the past. 

If Trump had lost the election, they wouldn’t have appointed a special counsel to investigate Russian election hacking.  

If Jared Kushner had managed to set up a secret back-channel with the Russians, we’d all be fucked.

If + past perfect, would have + past participle

Embedded in these hypotheticals are the present realities:

Trump won the election.

Kushner failed in his attempt to set up a secret back-channel.

So should Mueller’s statement be a second or a third conditional, and what conceptual difference is there between the structures as reported by various news outlets today?

If we had confidence that the President did not commit a crime, we would have said. 

If we had had confidence that the President did not commit a crime, we would have said

The important part to focus on is the different renderings of the condition of having confidence.

Does Mueller’s team have confidence in the present or the past? The 10 minute summary of the special counsel investigation comes at its conclusion and dissolution, so Mueller’s ’team' is no more. Indeed, he’s up at podium to announce his retirement. So it seems to me Mueller isn’t considering a hypothetical situation related to a present conditions - because the special counsel investigation itself is over. The condition that gives rise to a hypothetical result is itself fixed in the past, so the ‘had had’ is warranted, indeed necessary. Without it, the second conditional implies the continuity of investigation. 

In both cases they didn’t announce the president’s innocence - we would have said - but using ‘If we had confidence’ suggests the special counsel might gain that confidence somewhere down the line. However, it’s all done and dusted now — ‘No obstruction, no collusion’ yeah right! — and the ball is firmly in Nancy Pelosi’s court.

So why did we see headlines such as The Guardian’s?

Did journalists mis-hear it? The third conditional structure certainly sounds like a second conditional. This could possibly be the reason for the mistranscription: all teachers will have seen students struggle with distinguishing between the second and third conditional in listening exercises, since English pronouns end in open vowels and are easily linked with an intrusive /j/  

I had had sounds like ‘eyidad'

she had had ‘sheyidad'

they had had ‘theyidad'

But look at the video - although Mueller stumbles over ‘confidence’, he clearly articulates both ‘hads.’


If we had had confidence that the President did not commit a crime, we would have said.

So what gives?

I believe the cause might be the use of the state of ‘having.’

'If we had confidence’ implies the existence of a we in the present, prior to the possibility of its having confidence now. ‘If we had had confidence’ implies the possibility of having confidence in the past - because the special counsel investigation is now over and its component individuals no longer exist as part of a ‘we’, a formal and legal corporate entity.

I could really sit here all night and wonder about this. It seems strange that whenever I sit and think deeply about language I often end up coming back to state verbs and action verbs, an element of speech a friend calls 'aspect'. Maybe I'll end up writing more about this in the coming days. For now, I need to go and eat my chicken.

For old time's time's sake:

Adjective and superlative phrases in speech delivered by Donald Trump at CIA Headquarters, Langley, Virginia, on January 21 2017:

very very special



very very special


very special

really special amazing 

very very few
























total star

total gem



very special

the most important

the most important



the most important

the most dishonest





very interesting

great respect