Identify the Overlay Issues in Dispute

Heidi Burgess

Guy M. Burgess

July, 2018

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.


This video explains common "overlay problems" such as factual disputes,framing, miscommunication, procedural problems, and escalation, that overlie the core conflict issues, making them more complicated and sometimes forgotten entirely. As an example, we discuss the July 2018 Trump/Putin summit and the aftermath of that.

Full Transcript:

Lightly edited for readability. 

Slide 1.  Hi!  This is Heidi Burgess. Today I want to talk about overlay issues in conflicts and disputes.

Slide 2. In the last video, I showed a picture of the earth, and I explained that conflicts are a lot like this diagram, in that they have a hot inner core and then there is a lot of stuff that gets overlaid over the core that we sometimes call the overlay --sometimes complicating factors -- that make the conflict worse and make it difficult even to see what the core is all about. 

Slide 3. In the last video, I said that the core conflict factors tend to be parties, interests and needs; rights, moral beliefs and values, high-stakes distributional issues, and identity issues.

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Slide 4. All of these things can get obscured by the five overlay factors, which include 1) factual disagreements, 2) procedural disagreements or discrepancies, 3)  framing problems, 4) communication problems, and 5) perhaps the biggest—escalation.

Slide 5. I want to explain how those five things play out in the context of the Helsinki Summit between Trump and Putin that was held just two days ago on July 16, 2018.  Now I will say that Guy has warned me that I shouldn’t do a video about an event that's going to quickly leave our minds, but I have a strong suspicion that this is going to be front and center and major history for a long time. Some of the slides, I hope, will show why I think that.

Slide 6. First of all, the core of the dispute now is a disagreement over facts, particularly the disagreement over whether or not Russia did, indeed, meddle in the 2016 US election, whether they are doing so now, and who to trust about the assertion that they did or didn't.

Slide 7.  When Trump was asked if he believed that the US intelligence agencies or Putin were right regarding the accusations, Trump said at the news conference, “President Putin says it's not Russia. I don't see any reason why it might would be.”

Slide 8.  He was quickly answered by his hand-picked director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, who pointed out that the intelligence community assessments are “fact based”-- those are his words. “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our security. “ “These actions are persistent, they are pervasive and they are meant to undermine America’s democracy,”

Yet, Trump has repeatedly stated that there is no meddling that there was no meddling in the past and there's no ongoing meddling. So who is right? This is a factual overlay.

Slide 9. This leads directly to a variety of ways of framing the situation. Former CIA director who was a Democrat, John Brennan, calls Trump’s statements “treasonous.” Another Republican, Jeff Flake said “it's shameful.” John McCain said “it's disgraceful.” Former Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele argued “that's how a press conference sounds when an asset stands next to his handler,” implying that Tromp is a spy or a lackey to Putin. Sen. Lindsey Graham was softer--he simply called it a “missed opportunity.”

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Slide 10.  Other Republicans who are still supportive of Trump were trying to dismiss it, saying it's Obama's fault because he didn't follow up on the Russian meddling soon enough. Or it's Russia's fault--suggesting that we should indeed penalize Russia because they are meddling in the United States democracies, but not calling Trump to task for saying otherwise. Others suggested it was just Trump's ego, but it's no big deal. The argument here was that Trump just didn't want to admit that his election wasn't clean, and so was it just him covering up and trying to make himself look better--but it's no big deal.

Slide 11.  President Trump, himself, framed it quite differently.  He said “the meeting between President Putin and myself was a great success, except in the fake news media.” And he called his critics “haters” who had something that he referred to as the “Trump Derangement Syndrome.”

Slide 12.  Which frame would you say is closer to the truth?

Slide 13.  Then there's procedural overlays. The procedures for this summit were highly irregular. First of all, Trump didn't use all of the briefing materials hee was given. At other presidential summits, the president’s advisors prepare massive amounts of briefing materials which the presidents study and they used to base their negotiations. Trump hardly looked at his documents at all. Rather he just “winged it.” He also insisted that no one was else was present. There were no recordings made so nobody knows what went on at this meeting. That's highly irregular.

Slide 14.  Other procedural disputes go farther back There is a conflict about the relationship between Trump and the US intelligence agencies--who can Trump control and who is independent. Trump tried to control James Comey who was his head of the FBI. He tried to get him to promise allegiance to Trump and when Comey refused to do that, insisting that he had allegiance to the U.S. Constitution, Trump fired him. Did he have a right to fire Comey?  That's under dispute. Is the president above the law? That's under dispute. Apparently, the Supreme Court nominee that's being considered right now thinks he is. Others think he isn't. Who can the president pardon? Can he pardon any of the people who are up on charges related to the election and possible collusion? And then there’s Mueller. Mueller was assigned to be a special prosecutor after Comey was let go.  Is his probe, legitimate, or is it, as Trump says, a witch hunt? That’s a framing question, but it is also a procedural dispute or procedural overlay problem.

Slide 15.  Then there's communication overlays. The one that's being talked about at the moment is what Trump said and what he now says he meant. He said “my people came to me. Dan Coats came to me and some others. They said they think it's Russia. I have President Putin. He just said, it's not Russia. I will say this-- I don't see any reason why it would be.” That's what he said on July 16th in Helsinki.

Slide 16.  Later he said he “misspoke.” He left out the word “not,” as in “I don't see any reason why it would NOT be Russia.” So he tried to back down after he got all the negative reaction, even from his own party, and said that he left out the word “not.” But then he quickly reverted and again asserted that there wasn't meddling there wasn't collusion and he didn't do anything wrong.

Slide 17. Another miscommunication issue is whether or not we should be calling this “treason.” As I said before, John Brennan, the former CIA director said ”Donald Trump's press conference performance in Helsinki rises to and exceeds the threshold of high crimes and misdemeanors. It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump's comments imbecilic. He is holy in the pocket of Putin.  Where are you, Republican patriots?”

However, a former Bush advisor and now professor at Johns Hopkins, Elliot Cohen, said “the word treason is so strong that we must use it carefully, but the press conferences brought the president of the United States, right up to that dark, dark, shore. So we have to use our words very carefully. I predict there's going to be a lot of talk over the next weeks, months, maybe years as to whether or not this previous and future acts are or are not treason.  Clearly communication is critical in this an all intractable conflicts.

Slide 18. Perhaps the most damaging ask overlay factor is escalation. The relationships between the two parties now is more escalated than anyone pretty much has ever remembered.

Slide 19.  Scholars Pruitt, Rubin, and Kim, some years ago, wrote a book called Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate, and Settlement where they lay out a number of factors that led to and were typical of escalation. First, tactics go from light to heavy—going. For example, from trying to persuade the other side or negotiate with the other side to using coercion, power plays, even violence. Second, the size of the conflict increases, meaning that there's more parties, there's more issues, and there's more resources being devoted to the conflict.  Third, issues go from specific to general until it is just a matter of the other side being “evil” and wrong in everything that they do and think and are. Finally, goals go doing from wanting to do well, even if the other side does well too, to wanting to win.  Eventually—in highly-escalated conflicts, you get to the point where the main goal is to hurt the other. And I really think that's where we are now!

Slide 20.  We've got tactics that are extremely harsh. Both sides are attacking each other in every way they can manage to do short, usually, of violence and there's even been some instances of that. Enormous number of resources are getting devoted to this conflict. We certainly have gotten to the generality-of-issues point where each side views the other with distrust and hatred. The issues have proliferated—we are fighting over everything.  And our goals of gotten to the point where were trying very hard to beat the other side into oblivion. I call this, in other places, “the into-the-sea syndrome where one or both sides are trying to drive the opponents “into the sea,” rather than work with them in any way!

Slide 21. You can put this in a conflict map and you start seeing arrows, meaning that one thing leads to the other, so heavy tactics lead to oppositional goals on the other side, which then leads to heavy tactics back. The issues proliferate, the parties involved proliferate, and everything feeds back upon itself.

Slide 22.  Then you can add in the other overlays--the fake facts, the questionable procedures,  miscommunication, or in this case, propaganda, and differential framing.  And you start getting feedback loops throughout the entire system.

Slide 23. Practically everything increases the intensity of everything else and the spiral goes up faster and faster and pulls in more and more people and does more and more damage. And all of this is overlaying the core conflict factors…

Slide 24. … which we can’t even see and are not even paying any attention to anymore.  We are just trying to do in the other side.  So that's why overlays are so damaging and so important. We will talk about what to do about all of these in the coming videos.


Referenced Resources

Slide 7, 15, and 16:  Mark Landler and Maggie Haberman. "A Besieged Trump Says He Misspoke on Russian Election Meddling." New York Times, July 17, 2018.

Slide 8: Morgan Chalfant. "Top U.S. intel official defends ‘fact-based’ conclusion on Russia meddling."  The Hill. 716/2018.

Slide 9: Allan Smith." 'An absolute disgrace': Republicans blast Trump for his 'disgusting' press conference with Putin." 7/16/2018. Business Insider. and Aris Folley. "Ex-RNC chairman: Trump sounded like an 'asset' next to his 'handler'" July 16, 2018.  The Hill.

Slide 11: Jen Kirby. “Trump tweets that haters would rather see him go to war than play nice with Putin” July 18,2018.

Slide 17: Matthew Bell.  “Did Trump commit treason in Helsinki?” PRI’s The World. July 17, 2018.


Photo Credits

Slides 2-4, and 24: Earth:  File from Wikipedia: Permission/attribution: By Kelvinsong (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Slide 5 and 13.  Photo from 

Slides 6-7, 9-12, 15,16 Picture from: News conference following talks between the presidents of Russia and the United States.

Slide 8: Official picture of Dan Coats. Public Domain.

Slide 14: Comey Photo by Rich Girard. Source: (CC BY-SA 2.0). Mueller Photo – Official FBI Photo, public domain. Trump: Picture by Gage Skidmore; On flickr at: CC BY-SA 2.0.

Slides 18-20:  Source:; By DonkeyHotey; Permission: Creative Commons 2.0.

Slides 20 and 23: Green Spiral:  Public Domain.