For the second time this week, the White House was asked whether President Trump knew about that $130,000 hush-money payment his lawyer made to porn star Stormy Daniels. And for the second time this week, it offered a weird non-denial denial.
“Not that I'm aware of,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday, repeating what she had said before.
But the answer this time was especially bizarre. Why? Because Sanders would later say that she had spoken to Trump about the matter — and yet she offered the kind of answer you'd expect if she hadn't. Rather than a flat “no,” she decided to suggest maybe Trump did know about the Daniels payment but that she simply wasn't aware if he had.
Sanders's performance at Wednesday's briefing highlighted the White House's increasingly odd and decidedly unforthcoming response to its burgeoning scandal involving the porn star. Rather than answer questions about Trump's involvement, the White House has repeatedly referred comment to the lawyer involved in the payment, Michael Cohen, even though Cohen himself isn't commenting. When it has commented, it's often been only to make the situation even murkier.
First there were deputy press secretary Raj Shah's non-responses on Feb. 22 to questions about whether he would even ask Trump about the payment:
SHAH: I haven’t asked him about that.
Q: Will you ask him about that?
SHAH: I haven’t asked him about it.
Q: But will you ask him about it, Raj?
SHAH: I’ll get back to you.
The reporter apparently didn't get a comment, nor has anybody at the White House relayed Trump's direct response to the question of whether he was involved in the payment. All we've got more than two weeks after Cohen first confirmed the payment is Sanders's noncommittal “Not that I'm aware of” — even after the Wall Street Journal reported this week that Cohen had suggested Trump was involved and after Cohen's statement about the matter conspicuously didn't deny Trump was involved.
But that wasn't even the most opaque thing Sanders said Wednesday. She also alluded to Trump having already won his dispute with Daniels “in arbitration.” Asked for details of that arbitration, she again referred comment to Cohen.
Daniels's newly filed lawsuit against Trump does allude to “bogus” arbitration initiated by Cohen:
... Only days ago on or about February 27, 2018, Mr. Trump's attorney Mr. Cohen surreptitiously initiated a bogus arbitration proceeding against Ms. Clifford in Los Angeles. Remarkably, he did so without even providing Ms. Clifford with notice of the proceeding and basic due process.
Put simply, considerable steps have been taken by Mr. Cohen in the last week to silence Ms. Clifford through the use of an improper and procedurally defective arbitration proceeding hidden from public view. ...
Because there was never a valid agreement and thus, no agreement to arbitrate, any subsequent order obtained by Mr. Cohen and/or Mr. Trump in arbitration is of no consequence or effect.
Daniels's lawyer seems to have a very different take on this, likening the claim to Trump having maintained he would have won the popular vote if not for millions of illegal votes.
We'll see if Cohen says anything else about the alleged arbitration victory; I'm not holding my breath. And either way, the whole thing sure makes it seem like the White House has something to hide.
Update: NBC reports the arbitration was a temporary restraining order against Daniels “which bars her from disclosing ‘confidential information’ related to the nondisclosure agreement signed in October 2016.”
It is difficult to square that with Sanders's comments, though, which suggested the arbitration decision had settled the entire dispute. “This case has already been won in arbitration,” she said twice. Despite Sanders's comments, a temporary restraining order would seem to be an incremental step rather than a full and complete resolution.