Published: April 12, 2023

Author: Elijah Geltman 
Advisor: GTPI Katherine Arnold-Murray
Class: LING 1000: Language in US Society
Semester: Summer 2022
LURA 2023


You're an environmental lawyer. How about you go back to your office, and we’ll call you when there’s an oil spill.” – Richard Donoghue, President Trump’s Acting Deputy Attorney General (2020-2021)

“I don’t get to be fired by someone who works for me.” – Jeffery Rosen, President Trump’s Acting Attorney General (2020-2021)

These contentious remarks provide compelling examples of normative political language. They were said in a meeting held three days before January 6 th , 2021, in which President Donald Trump sought to appoint a Department of Justice environmental lawyer named Jeffrey Clark to the position of Attorney General. The Attorney General is the highest-ranking position in the United States Department of Justice (DOJ), and the “chief law enforcement officer of the Federal Government” (DOJ Office of AG). Trump sought to install Clark in this role because Clark supported his baseless claims of election fraud in the 2020 election and was willing to “wield the powers of the DOJ to overturn the results of the 2020 election” (Sprunt, 2022). If appointed to the position of Attorney General, Clark promised to issue official statements recommending that states won by Joe Biden report Donald Trump as the winner because of [non-existent] election fraud (Quinn, 2022). Should Clark have been appointed Attorney General, states might have been influenced to baselessly select Trump as the winner of the election.

However, Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue and Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen raised objections about Clark’s ability to be Attorney General. The language used to express dissent in this important moment in US political history provides insight into the study of normative and subordinating language.

I analyze this discussion using the concepts of categories and reference forms. Simply put, a reference form is a name we use to describe something in the world. Reference forms are generated by categories with social significance, such as gender and occupation. For example, given these categories, Clark can be called a man, a lawyer, or an environmental lawyer. Often, reference forms invoke normative qualities relating to categories. I apply Raymond’s (2019) understanding of categories and reference forms as providing “insight into participants' own practical, commonsense reasoning about the invoked categories – especially with regard to what constitutes normative, expected conduct for the [category] in question” (Raymond, 2019, p. 590). Reference forms highlight the relevance of specific categories by which form is chosen, and make and support argumentative claims about which societal categories are relevant to a discussion.

  1. Donoghue:     I made the point that Jeff Clark is not even competent to serve as the Attorney
  2.                       General. He's never been a criminal attorney. He's never conducted a criminal
  3.                       investigation in his life. He's never been in front of a grand jury, much less a trial
  4.                       jury. And he kind of retorted by saying, "Well, I've done a lot of very complicated
  5.                       appeals and civil litigation, environmental litigation, and things like that." And I
  6.                       said, “That's right. You're an environmental lawyer. How about you go back to
  7.                       your office, and we'll call you when there's an oil spill." (Source: House Select Committee, p. 126).

In the transcript above, Donoghue says, “He’s never been a criminal attorney. He’s never conducted a criminal investigation in his life. He’s never been in front of a grand jury, much less a trial jury.” By using these reference forms, Donoghue claims that the category of being unqualified to practice criminal law is relevant. Clark refers to categories that counter this claim. He refers to himself as someone who has “done a lot of very complicated appeals and civil litigation, environmental litigation, and things like that.” This language invokes categories that imply that Clark is qualified (i.e., that he is experienced with overall legal proceedings), disputing the relevance of Donoghue’s reference forms.

The idea of categories can help us evaluate the argumentative strength of Clark’s language. For example, Clark argues that the category of experience in civil law is relevant, and Donoghue claims that the category of experience in criminal law is relevant. But Clark’s choice of relevance is weaker because Donoghue selects categories that are incompatible with his claim not being valid. Having done “complicated appeals and civil litigation” can be true, while it can also be true that Clark is not in the category of ‘qualified to be Attorney General.’ Conversely, a reference form generated by the category ‘unqualified to practice criminal law’ is incompatible with the category ‘qualified to be Attorney General’ because the Attorney General is the highest-ranking criminal lawyer in the country. Thus, Donoghue’s language strengthens his argument more than Clark’s.

When Donoghue responds by saying, “You’re an environmental lawyer. How about you go back to your office, and we’ll call you when there’s an oil spill,” he is invoking what is expected of a person who works in the domain of environmental law. It is not expected that someone whose relevant experience is cleaning up oil spills is qualified to be Attorney General. Similarly, Rosen told Clark during the meeting, “You went behind your boss’s back, and you’re proposing things that are outside your domain and you don’t know what you’re talking about,” as well as, “I don’t get to be fired by someone who works for me.”

These reference forms invoke Clark’s actions. For example, Clark’s attempt to have his boss Jeffrey Rosen fired and working outside his domain are actions that reinforce Rosen and Donoghue’s claims about categories. This aligns with Raymond’s (2019) argument that categories are “consistently produced and reproduced in and through the conduct of social actors” (p. 586). Action generates both the normative categories themselves and the use of their reference forms. Thus, it makes sense that we switch between reference forms and categories when we “use variation in language to construct ourselves as social beings, to signal who we are, and who we are not and do not want to be” (Lippi-Green, 2012).

By analyzing this discussion, I examine how social categories and their reference forms impact the strength of political arguments. Similarly, I examine how reference forms impact the use of normative and subordinating language.

Image Credit 

Source (left): Susan Walsh/Pool/AFP via Getty Images Source (right): Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images


  1. Lippi-Green, Rosina. (2012). English with an accent: Language, ideology, and discrimination in the United States. (Chapter 5: Language Subordination (Pg.66)) New York: Routledge.
  2. Quinn, Melissa. Who Is Jeffrey Clark? Ex-DOJ Official Emerged as Central Player in Trump's Election Scheme. CBS News, CBS Interactive, 20 Dec. 2022,
  3. Raymond, C. (2019). Category accounts: Identity and normativity in sequences of action. Language in Society, 48(4), 585-606. doi:10.1017/S0047404519000368
  4. Sprunt, Barbara. Former DOJ Officials Detail Threatening to Resign En Masse in Meeting with Trump. NPR, NPR, 24 June 2022,
  5. Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol, Interview Of: Richard Peter Donoghue. 1 October 2021, RANSCRIPT-CTRL0000034600.pdf