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The White House’s strange denial of an alleged Trump affair with a Playboy Playmate fits a pattern

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks to reporters and members of the media last week. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

In Ronan Farrow's story about an alleged effort to cover up Donald Trump's reported nine-month affair with Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal is a somewhat odd White House denial.

“This is an old story that is just more fake news,” an unnamed spokesperson says. “The president says he never had a relationship with McDougal.”

“The president says!?" Most official comments in stories like this include flat denials with no secondhand attribution. “The president never had a relationship with McDougal” is a flat denial. “The president says he never had a relationship with McDougal” attributes that denial directly to the president and suggests that the spokesperson is relying only on Trump's word.

This might seem like a whole lot of nitpicking and over-the-top parsing, and it doesn't mean press secretaries of previous presidents haven't done it, but this is part of a pattern for this White House. In defending a president who has problems with the truth and regularly embraces conspiracy theories, his aides will often attribute comments and denials directly to him rather than to themselves. It's as if they want to make sure their own credibility isn't harmed in case Trump's theory or denial doesn't wind up being based in reality.


This began early in the Trump administration — shortly after White House press secretary Sean Spicer was widely criticized for embracing Trump's bogus claims about his inauguration crowd size.

Days later, when Trump was pushing dubious theories about millions of people having voted illegally in the 2016 election, Spicer repeatedly ascribed the theories to Trump: “The president does believe that,” Spicer said Jan. 24, 2017. He added: “I think the president has believed that for a while based on studies and information he has,” and then, “as I've noted several times now, he's believed this for a long time.” When reporters noted that Spicer kept attributing the belief to Trump and asked whether he agreed, Spicer demurred, saying it wasn't “my job” to opine on the issue.

A few weeks later, Spicer was again pressed on whether he personally agreed with Trump's theory about President Barack Obama having wiretapped Trump Tower. “I get how that’s a cute question,” he said, “but I’m not here to speak for myself. I’m here to speak for the president.”

But it's often implied that a spokesperson is speaking for the president and doesn't need to be repeatedly stated. Spicer's job, after all, was to speak directly for Trump, and it was conspicuous that he kept seemingly distancing himself from Trump's more outlandish statements rather than stating flatly that they were accurate.

But it hasn't just been Spicer or the unnamed spokesperson in the Farrow story:

  • When it was reported that Trump used a profane term for African nations last month, now-White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders clarified that she had no firsthand knowledge: “Look, I wasn't in that room. So I can go only off of what the individuals who were. They said that term wasn't used but that tough language was.”
  • When the #MeToo movement was big news in politics, Sanders was asked whether it was the official White House position that Trump's female accusers were, as Trump said on the campaign trail, “liars.” Sanders affirmed it but quickly noted that Trump himself owned that statement: “We’ve been clear on that from the beginning, and the president’s spoken on it.”
  • In December, Sanders reiterated that “the president has denied any of these allegations.”
  • About Trump being involved in Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with a Russian lawyer, Sanders said: “As the president has stated many times, no, and he wasn't part of or aware of that.”
  • In response to the Rob Porter scandal and Trump's comments casting doubt on the spouse-abuse accusations against Porter, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said this week: “The president believes, as he said the other day, you have to consider all sides. He has said this in the past about incidents that relate to him, as well.”
  • Conway did this before with Trump's family, too. When it was reported that Trump's daughter, Tiffany, was registered to vote in two states — something the president had alleged in other cases amounted to voter fraud — Conway said, “I talked last night with Tiffany Trump, and she said it is flatly false that she is registered in two states.” (Tiffany Trump was registered in two states, though.)

We'll see if the pattern continues. The Porter scandal has reportedly led many White House aides to doubt the information they've been provided — which means this kind of thing may continue to proliferate.

(A tip of the hat to Aron Goldman for his assistance.)