But there have been a number of instances in which the president or his surrogates have flatly denied something — only to have that denial contradicted weeks or months later by new documents or statements. Often, by then the media coverage has moved on to a new controversy.
The release of the tape recording between Trump and his former fixer, Michael Cohen, is only the most recent example of this dynamic. Here’s a sampling of White House denials that eventually unraveled after new information was disclosed. Strikingly, these examples often involve situations that might place the president in legal jeopardy.
There are, of course, many other instances — such as denials that Trump considered firing special prosecutor Robert S. Mueller III or why Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey — but we kept this list to cases in which either the administration admitted or official records showed the initial denial was false.
Trump knew nothing about Daniels, McDougal or payoffs
When the Wall Street Journal first reported just before the 2016 election that the company that owns the National Enquirer agreed to pay $150,000 to a former Playboy centerfold model for her story of an affair a decade ago with Trump — but did not publish it — Trump’s spokeswoman Hope Hicks was quick to dismiss it. “We have no knowledge of any of this,” she told the WSJ, adding that Karen McDougal’s claim of an affair with Mr. Trump was “totally untrue.”
Hicks’s statements to the media were often dictated directly by Trump.
But that denial of knowing anything about the transaction was rendered false by the release July 24 by Cohen’s attorney of a recording of a conversation two months before the election between Trump and Cohen, secretly made by Cohen.
“Um,” Cohen says, “I need to open up a company for the transfer of all of that info regarding our friend, David,” which is potentially a reference to David Pecker, president of American Media Inc., which owns the National Enquirer. Cohen mentions that he had “spoken to Allen Weisselberg [of the Trump Organization] about how to set the whole thing up” and Trump asks, “So, what do we got to pay for this? One-fifty?”
In other words, not only was Trump aware of the payment by AMI, he even knew the figure.
Similarly, when Trump in April was asked whether he knew about a $130,000 payment to pornographic film star Stormy Daniels to buy her silence, arranged by Cohen, the president denied any knowledge of it. (The WSJ also broke that story, which included this Cohen statement about whether Trump had an affair with Daniels: “President Trump once again vehemently denies any such occurrence.”)
“No. No. What else?” Trump said in response to questions about the Daniels payment, saying that he did not know about it when it was made and that he did not know where Cohen got the money. “Well, you’ll have to ask Michael Cohen. Michael is my attorney. And you’ll have to ask Michael Cohen. … No, I don’t know. No.”
Cohen had also claimed he acted on his own. “In a private transaction in 2016, I used my own personal funds to facilitate a payment of $130,000 to Ms. Stephanie Clifford,” Cohen said in February. “Neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign was a party to the transaction with Ms. Clifford, and neither reimbursed me for the payment, either directly or indirectly.”
But then in May, Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani admitted that Trump had reimbursed Cohen for the payout to Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford.
“The payment was made to resolve a personal and false allegation in order to protect the president’s family,” Giuliani said. In a July interview, Giuliani sidestepped questions about whether Trump knew of the payment when it was made. “Even if he had, that would not necessarily be anything. … That’s something you settle because you don’t want your family to be embarrassed.”
In other words, the initial denials were “fake news” — and the original reporting was correct.
Update, Aug. 21: Cohen pleaded guilty to eight counts, including two campaign-finance violations regarding Daniels and American Media Inc., which he said he made at the direction of Trump.
Trump had no role in Trump Jr.’s statement on Russia meeting
When the New York Times reported in July 2017 that the president’s son had tried to obtain damaging information on Hillary Clinton from Russia during the campaign, the president’s lawyer, Jay Sekulow, insisted that the president was unaware of the meeting and had no role in drafting his son’s initial statement to the media.
That initial statement was misleading — falsely claiming that Trump’s son and a Russian lawyer had “primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children” and that the subject of the meeting was “not a campaign issue at the time.” Under pressure, Trump’s son released a fuller, more accurate description, including emails.
“Let’s focus on what the president was aware of: nothing,” Sekulow told CNN. “I wasn’t involved in the statement drafting at all nor was the president. I’m assuming that was between Mr. Donald Trump Jr. and his lawyers. I’m sure his lawyer was involved, that’s how you do it. To put this on the president, I think, is absolutely incorrect.”
The Times had reported that Trump “signed off” on the statement but Sekulow insisted: “Well, they’re incorrect.”
But then two weeks later, the White House story evolved, after The Washington Post reported that Trump had dictated the misleading statement. “The president weighed in as any father would, based on the limited information that he had,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said about Trump’s involvement in the statement.
In January, Trump’s lawyers admitted in a memo to special counsel Mueller that Trump himself had dictated the statement issued by his son, a disclosure apparently forced because of documents obtained by Mueller’s office: “You have received all of the notes, communications and testimony indicating that the President dictated a short but accurate response to the New York Times article on behalf of his son, Donald Trump, Jr.”
So again, the initial reporting was correct, despite all of the denials.
(Recall, also, that the Trump campaign’s initial statement about Russian contacts, via Hicks, was also a flat denial after a Russian government official was quoted as saying the Russians had contact with members of Trump’s entourage before the election: “It never happened. There was no communication between the campaign and any foreign entity during the campaign.”)
Update, Aug. 5: President Trump tweeted that the meeting was intended to get dirt on Clinton, thus confirming the original reporting that he initially said was false.
Michael Flynn did not discuss sanctions with the Russians
Before Trump took office, The Post’s David Ignatius reported on Jan. 12, 2017, that incoming national security adviser Michael T. Flynn had spoken to the Russian ambassador around the time the Obama administration imposed sanctions on Russia for interfering in the 2016 presidential campaign. The Russian government’s response was muted, and Ignatius asked: “What did Flynn say, and did it undercut the U.S. sanctions?”
The next day, incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer, in a conference call with reporters, denied that sanctions were discussed. Other Trump administration officials made similar claims.
But then on Feb. 9, The Post reported that Flynn had discussed sanctions in the phone calls. Flynn initially denied that he had discussed sanctions in an interview with The Post, but then amended his comment. He “indicated that while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.” Flynn was fired within days.
Trump then denied at a news conference that he had directed Flynn to discuss sanctions with the Russian ambassador and denied that other officials had been involved as well. “I saw a couple of the people that were supposedly involved with all of this, they know nothing, anything about it. They never received a phone call from Russia. It’s all fake news. It’s all fake news,” he said.
But when Flynn pleaded guilty to misleading the FBI in December, the criminal information made it clear that other Trump transition team members were involved in the discussion about what to tell the Russians about the sanctions. The document described how Flynn discussed with another official what to say on the call, noting that Trump officials did not want Russia to escalate the situation, and that he then reported back to senior members of the transition team about the positive response from Russia.
In other words, the president’s denial that other officials were involved was false.
Trump did not give classified information to Russia
After The Post reported that Trump had revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in a White House meeting in May 2017, the then-national security adviser issued a statement saying, “The story that came out tonight as reported is false.”
But the next morning, Trump tweeted that he had an “absolute right” to disclose such information to the Russians.
Then, after NBC News reported that Israel was the source of the intelligence, Trump appeared to confirm that as well during a visit to Israel: “Folks, folks, just so you understand, just so you understand, I never mentioned the word or the name Israel during that conversation” with the Russians, he told reporters.
Before Trump’s comment, officials had never confirmed on the record that the source was Israel.
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