Incoming White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Tuesday unequivocally denied that President Trump or his staff were involved in a Fox News report in May, since retracted, that promoted a conspiracy theory about the 2016 death of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich.
“The president had no knowledge of the story, and it's completely untrue that he or the White House had involvement in the story,” Sanders said during a news briefing, disputing an account contained in a lawsuit filed against Fox News.
That might not settle the matter, but it is significant. Confronted with an unflattering reality, the Trump White House often issues some kind of non-denial denial — a carefully-worded statement that doesn't address the issue head-on and which can plausibly be defended as honest if additional information emerges.
This time, Sanders didn't play games, which suggests the White House is either telling the truth or feeling supremely confident it won't get caught in a lie.
We saw examples of the White House's usual gamesmanship on display at other points in Tuesday's briefing. Asked about a misleading statement Donald Trump Jr. issued to the New York Times about meeting with a Russian lawyer, Sanders emphasized that “there's no inaccuracy in the statement.”
That is technically true, but the statement was misleading because it focused on one topic of discussion while omitting the main purpose of the session.
Asked whether the president dictated the statement, as reported by The Washington Post, Sanders conceded that he “weighed in, as any father would.” That doesn't directly contradict Sanders's previous remarks, because she said a few weeks ago that she did not know whether Trump helped his son craft a response.
Remember when The Post reported in May that Trump revealed classified intelligence to Russian diplomats during a meeting in the Oval Office? The White House deployed national security adviser H.R. McMaster to knock down a straw man.
“At no time — at no time — were intelligence sources or methods discussed,” McMaster told reporters. “And the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known.”
As The Fix's Aaron Blake noted at the time, The Post didn't report that Trump discussed sources and methods or that he disclosed previously unknown military operations. The White House denied that Trump did things he wasn't accused of — an apparent strategy to look defiant in the face of negative coverage without disputing the report's real substance in an untruthful way.
If Sanders wanted to obfuscate on Tuesday, she could have left out the explicit denial and skipped to this part, where she said there was nothing unusual about Sean Spicer, the press secretary at the time, meeting with a GOP donor and a detective who was a contributor to Fox News working on the story in question:
It doesn't bother me that the press secretary would take a meeting with somebody involved in the media about a story. … They had a conversation, and that was the end of it. You guys come to us with stories all day. I've taken meetings with the majority of people in this room. I don't always know the nature of the story of what you're coming to me to talk about, but it's my job to talk to you, to listen.
Alone, those remarks would have been a classic non-denial denial from the Trump White House. In context, they were just one part of an all-out rejection of the lawsuit's premise.