The White House is no stranger to making misleading and false claims when denying things. But even by its standards, Thursday was a remarkably dishonest day.
President Trump's personal lawyer John Dowd resigned early in the day, and Trump replaced national security adviser H.R. McMaster with John Bolton at the end of the day. Both of these things were effectively denied by the White House just last week.
As I detailed Thursday, Trump himself denied his legal team was headed for a shake-up on March 11. Eleven days later, he had added one lawyer (Joe diGenova), tried to add another (Ted Olson) and seen his lead personal lawyer resign (Dowd).
Trump's above tweet was responding to a New York Times report that he might hire another lawyer, Emmet Flood, whom he hasn't brought on. But it clearly created the impression that no changes on his legal team were in the offing. Trump said it was “wrong” to say he was going to add another lawyer; he did so eight days later with diGenova. And Trump's claims to be “VERY happy” with his legal team clearly weren't true.
The White House's denial of McMaster's exit might be even worse. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on March 15 denied a Washington Post report that Trump had decided to replace McMaster: “Contrary to reports they have a good working relationship and there are no changes at the NSC.”
It was clear at the time that this perhaps wasn't an ironclad denial.
Sanders's statement may be defensible if you parse it the right way. She does deny the report, but she would probably argue she was only denying the part about Trump and McMaster not getting along — not McMaster's impending departure.
But even if she was splitting that hair, the tweet was hugely misleading. In the rest of the tweet, Sanders says “there are no changes at the NSC” — which was, at the time, strictly true; McMaster wasn't removed until a week later. But The Post's report didn't say it had already happened — only that it would. By denying the report, Sanders left the impression that its central claim was wrong. It 100 percent was not.
Sanders's denial is even worse when you consider this: McMaster himself confirmed Thursday to the Times that his impending departure had been discussed for weeks and that “really, the only issue that had been left open is timing.” Despite that, the White House decided to pretend this wasn't happening and issue a hugely misleading denial.
Look, I get it: You can't confirm a report that someone is leaving before they have left. Non-denial denials are somewhat commonplace in politics. But usually they're more artfully crafted. Someone like Sanders might say something like, “General McMaster still has the president's confidence, and we have nothing more to say about this speculation.” Her statement last week went much further, though, to suggest The Post's accurate report was wrong.
Rarely has a politician's office — much less a White House — been so willing to torch its credibility over basically nothing.