This post has been updated with Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s non-denial.
The allegation that a tape exists of President Trump saying the n-word began as a baseless claim put forward by a former White House aide with credibility problems and a pretty unquenchable taste for notoriety.
It’s no longer quite so baseless.
A recording released by Omarosa Manigault Newman to CBS News on Tuesday morning purportedly features her and two other black Trump campaign staffers talking about the alleged existence of the tape. At one point, a person she identifies as spokeswoman Katrina Pierson says clearly, “He said it. He said it. He’s embarrassed."
And on top of that, two top White House spokeswomen on Tuesday declined to rule out the tape’s existence, instead saying they hadn’t personally witnessed Trump saying that word and referring to his own denials.
The purported recording of Trump aides appears to confirm that they believed the tape might exist and, notably, that his black staffers believed Trump would actually use the word. Although the recording has not been authenticated, the staffers seemed to confirm it with their responses to it Tuesday. And it utterly contradicts the denials they offered in Trump’s defense in recent days.
Less than 12 hours prior, during an appearance on Fox News, Pierson appeared to flatly deny such a conversation ever took place (emphases added):
FOX NEWS’S ED HENRY: In the book, Omarosa says, “Katrina had heard from her sources that the tape was of Trump using the n-word. Someone she knew, who knew political strategist Frank Luntz told her that Luntz had heard it. Lynne," as in Lynne Patton, the longtime Trump aide, "reported she asked Trump about it on the plane, specifically whether it was possible such a tape might exist, and he said no. Then she, Katrina, asked then what he wanted her to do and he said, put it to bed. Katrina cursed and said, ‘He said it.’ ” Did that happen?
PIERSON: No, Ed. That did not happen. It sounds like she’s writing a script for a movie. I’ve already been out there talking about this. That is absolutely not true. I have no sources with that tape. I have no connections to anyone at “Celebrity Apprentice,” other than Omarosa. And, in fact, she was the only one that brought this tape up. People that I’ve checked with, who she’s mentioned, have no idea what she’s talking about.
In response to the apparent discrepancy, Pierson and another campaign aide on that call, Lynne Patton, released a statement Tuesday morning saying Pierson’s denial referred only to the part of the question indicating Luntz had heard the alleged n-word tape (which Luntz has denied hearing).
“What has been definitively refuted is that we never had a call confirming that Frank Luntz, or anyone else, directly heard Donald J. Trump use derogatory language on this alleged tape,” Patton and Pierson said. (Patton’s tweet releasing the statement makes clear that they meant to refute ever having the call.)
Patton had also released a statement Monday night to that effect: “To be clear, at no time did I participate in a conference call with Katrina Pierson advising me, [Trump spokesman] Jason Miller and Omarosa Manigault-Newman that Frank Luntz had heard President Donald J. Trump use a derogatory racial term.”
Except ... that turns out to not exactly be true, either. The CBS News reporter on the story, Weijia Jiang, just released more of Pierson’s comments from the purported conversation with Manigault Newman and Patton, and they do indeed cite Luntz as “apparently” having heard Trump say it (which, again, Luntz has denied).
“Okay, well, Frank Luntz knows what it is, apparently heard it,” Pierson said, according to Jiang. “I’m trying to find out at least the context it was used in to help us maybe try to figure out a way to spin it.”
Now Pierson claims in an interview with the Daily Beast that she was just agreeing with the premise that the tape existed to placate Manigault Newman.
So yet again, we have a situation in which the Trump team’s flat denials are apparently roundly disproved. This has happened many times with regards to the Russia investigation. And, as usual, the question is: Why? Why deny a call that clearly appears to have happened? Is it because the recording would be so damning if Manigault Newman had it? She said she had it, they challenged her account, and then she produced the (apparent) goods.
Trump’s other aides have to wonder now whether their denials will similarly fall apart. And, notably, they seem to be scaling them back. On Tuesday, both White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said they personally weren’t aware of Trump saying such things. But Sanders declined repeated opportunities to rule out its existence.
“I can’t guarantee anything," she said at one point. At another: “Look, I haven’t been in every single room.”
“I know nothing about it, actually,” Conway said. At another point, she added: “I’ve worked alongside Donald Trump for two straight years; I’ve never heard him say anything about that, including about my husband.” (Manigault Newman also has said that Trump used racial slurs against Conway’s husband, George Conway, who is half Filipino. George Conway has denied this account.)
We don’t know whether the tape exists. Pierson may have just been wagering a guess that Trump said it, given what she knew about him (which would be pretty bad, in and of itself). But this was clearly something about which Trump staffers have been concerned and can’t dismiss as a baseless rumor.
Manigault Newman hasn’t proved her claim, but the Trump team has proved that it protests too much — and that it may be done protesting too hard.