Last week the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol issued a subpoena to former Trump White House speechwriter Ross Worthington, according to ABC News.
From the subpoena letter itself: “Based on documents produced to the Select Committee, we have reason to believe you assisted with drafting then-President Trump’s speech at the rally held on the Ellipse in Washington, D.C. on January 6, 2021, in support of his allegations of election fraud. President Trump falsely asserted that he had won the 2020 Presidential election and urged the crowd to ‘fight much harder’ and ‘stop the steal.’ President Trump also encouraged attendees to march to the Capitol, telling them ‘I’ll be there with you.'”
The Select Committee requests related documents, and a deposition from the erstwhile White House scribe.
Worthington, 33, kept a particularly low profile in the White House—declining to comment for a New York Times story two years ago on the writing of the 2020 State of the Union Address. Worthington’s onetime boss Newt Gingrich told the Times that Worthington and his then speechwriting colleague Vince Haley “really have a deep feeling that the more anonymous they are, they’re probably better off.”
I can’t even find a picture of Worthington on Google.
Yet, he’s being roused out of his obscurity by elected officials suddenly intensely interested in the inner workings of the speech drafting process. Assuming he obeys the subpoena, I guess he’s obligated to answer any questions he’s asked, or take the Fifth.
But as Worthington is considering how to go about answering those questions, he might do well to take some guidance from the PSA’s spare and simple Speechwriter’s Code of Ethics.
First, Rule 2 is on CONFIDENTIALITY: Speechwriters keep matters involving clients as confidential as the clients demand and expect.
Now, Presidents Obama, Bush and Clinton didn’t begrudge their speechwriters getting a star turn in exchange for their devotion. But President Trump seemed a little more inclined to keep up the illusion of his own authorship.
Which is absolutely Trump’s right to do, according to the official Speechwriter’s Code of Ethics (and most speechwriters’ personal codes, too). As soon as the speaker utters the words, those words and their consequences are the speaker’s own—for good, or for ill. So the speaker shouldn’t have to worry about some speechwriter running around saying, “I wrote that!”
So in Worthington’s deposition, unless the panel has some “track changes” notations or other unlikely written exchanges between him and Trump, Worthington may simply respond by shrugging off any questions about what he drafted versus what the president said as unremembered and irrelevant, because what the president said was all that mattered in the end.
Except, there’s one section of the Code that Worthington’s questioners should actually know about.
That’s Rule 5, which is CANDOR: Speechwriters are willing to speak “truth to power.” That means confronting the client when asked to include deceptive, misleading or false material.
Now, for all we know, Worthington may have believed, right along with his boss, that the election was fraudulent. He may also have believed it was important for the audience to march to the Capitol to raise hell. (In the speechwriting trade, that part of the speech is called a “call to action,” and most speechwriters believe every speech should have one.) He may even have believed that President Trump was going to accompany the audience to the Capitol, personally. (Or, Trump might have ad-libbed some of his claims from the stage; none of this language is terribly artful.)
But Worthington should be questioned about his own beliefs, his own relationship with the truth. Because speechwriting, at least as most of its practitioners generally think about it, is not like the law, where everyone deserves the right to a vigorous defense. This is more like citizenship, where each practitioner must behave according to the dictates of his or her own conscience. As I have written in detail before.
In any case, Worthington’s deposition might make a cautionary case study for the next World Conference of the Professional Speechwriters Association. I’m thinking maybe, “‘I Didn’t Know the Speech Was Loaded’: How to Make Sure the ‘Call to Action’ You Write Doesn’t Get Anybody Killed, or Traumatize a Nation.”