As president, Donald Trump has uttered more than 4,000 falsehoods or misleading statements. And the spokespeople and advisers tasked with squaring Trump's version of reality with actual reality must often contort themselves accordingly. Early in the administration, this meant Kellyanne Conway talking about how the administration had “alternative facts.” Later, it was Sean Spicer explaining that he didn't “knowingly” lie to the American people.
On Sunday, they tried a couple of new tacks: asserting that “facts develop” and saying that the president “misspoke” — while saying something he has said dozens of times.
The first came on ABC News's “This Week.” In light of Trump's problematic new tweet about the 2016 Trump Tower meeting, George Stephanopoulos challenged the president's personal attorney Jay Sekulow on two past, disproven assurances that Trump hadn't authored the initial, misleading statement about it. (That statement said the meeting was “primarily” about the adoption of Russian children.)
Here's the exchange (emphasis added):
STEPHANOPOULOS: You said the president wasn’t involved in any way at all. Later, Sarah Sanders changed that. She said, oh, yes, the president weighed in but didn’t dictate anything. And then in January of this year, the president’s legal team, including you, sent a memo to Robert Mueller saying this: “You have received all the notes, communications and testimony indicating that the president did dictate a short but accurate response to the New York Times article on behalf of his son.”
So why did you deny President Trump’s involvement? When did you learn that the denial wasn’t true?
SEKULOW: Well, let me tell you two things on that one. Number one, as you know, George, I was in the case at that point, what, a couple of weeks? And there was a lot of information that was gathering and as my colleague Rudy Giuliani said, I had — I had bad information at that time and made a mistake in my statement. I’ve talked about that before. That happens when you have cases like this.
As far as when did we correct it, the important part is the information that we’ve shared with the Office of Special Counsel — I’m not going to get into the details — but we were very clear as to the situation involving that trip and the — and the statements that were made to the New York Times. So I think it’s very important to point out that in a situation like this, you have — over time, facts develop.
Facts might have “developed” from Sekulow's perspective, but the actual events never changed. Either Trump didn't tell him the truth about his role in drafting that statement, or Sekulow and Sanders offered assurances that were basically made-up. That “bad information” came from somewhere — either Trump or thin air. There are only two options here, and neither is good.
On another Sunday show, national security adviser John Bolton offered another extremely hard-to-stomach explanation for Trump's soft stance toward Vladimir Putin on Russia's interference in the 2016 U.S. election, saying Trump merely “misspoke”:
CHRIS WALLACE: But one of the most powerful ways that Mr. Trump can try to prevent any meddling in the 2018 election is to stand up in public and call out Vladimir Putin and say knock it off. I want to go back to Helsinki and to the joint summit news conference there.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WALLACE: I know you say that it was the first issue, election meddling, that President Trump brought up with Putin in their one-on-one meeting. But why not stand there right alongside Putin, with the whole world watching and say, we are not going to stand for any more meddling?
BOLTON: Well, as the president said, he misspoke. The subsequent point in the news conference and that he intended to say just that, he had a statement issued the next day that I think made clear where he stood on the issue. And as I say, you can't read any motive into what he did other than his deep concern about Russian election meddling than to put the four operating heads and myself out for that press briefing.
Trump has also said that he misspoke at the news conference with Putin — but not at this juncture. He said that when he said “I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia, he meant to say wouldn't instead.
As the video clip Wallace played shows, that was hardly the only moment in the joint news conference with Putin in which Trump played down the idea that Russia interfered. Bolton was responding not to Trump saying “I don't see any reason why it would be” Russia but to his insistence that “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.” Trump has never said he misspoke about that.
And that really gives lie to this whole thing. Trump has downplayed Putin's interference so many times over the past 18 months that he would have had to be misspeaking almost constantly. It's clear what he truly believes or at least wants to convey — even if aides can occasionally reel him back in slightly.
These explanations are not serious; they are merely the best, bad explanations that exist. These are the positions Trump's public voices have been put in, given his inability to tell the truth — or ambivalence toward it. But each and every one of them also has the side effect of undermining the credibility of the spokespeople who, in neither of these cases, must truly believe the things they are saying.