The person who speaks for the president on Tuesday declined to vouch for him.

Asked whether there is a tape anywhere of Donald Trump using the n-word, as former White House aide Omarosa Manigault Newman has claimed, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders pointedly and repeatedly declined to rule it out. At one point she even said, “I can’t guarantee anything.”

White House spokespeople have occasionally emphasized that denials were coming from the president and not from them personally — apparently not wanting another false denial to damage their own credibility — but on Tuesday it was crystal-clear exactly what was happening. Sanders, like others in President Trump’s orbit, including Kellyanne Conway, wanted no part of ruling out the president having used such a racial slur, just in case there is actually a tape.

Here’s the exchange with NBC News’s Kristen Welker (key parts bolded):

WELKER: Has he ever used the n-word?

SANDERS: The president addressed that question directly via Twitter. I’d refer you back to him. I can certainly say I’ve never heard him use that term or anything similar.

WELKER: Have you asked him directly, Sarah?

SANDERS: The president — I didn’t have to, because he addressed it to the American people all at one time.

WELKER: Why haven’t you asked him directly?

SANDERS: Again, the president answered that question directly on Twitter earlier today.

WELKER: Can you stand at the podium and guarantee the American people they’ll never hear Donald Trump utter the n-word on a recording in any context.

SANDERS: I can’t guarantee anything, but I can tell you that the president addressed this question directly. I can tell you that I’ve never heard it. I can also tell you that if myself or the people that are in this building serving this country every single day doing our very best to serve our country and make it better, if at any point we felt that the president was who some of his critics claim him to be, we certainly wouldn’t be here. This is a president who is fighting for all Americans, who is putting policies in place that help all Americans — particularly African Americans. Just look at the economy alone. This president, since he’s been in office, in the year and a half since he’s been here, has created 700,000 new jobs for African Americans. That’s 700,000 African Americans that are working now that weren’t working when this president took place. When President Obama left, after eight years in office — eight years in office — he had only created 195,000 jobs for African Americans. President Trump in his first year and a half has already tripled what President Obama did in eight years. Not only did he do that for African Americans, but for Hispanics; 1.7 million more Hispanics are working now. This is a president who cares about all Americans, who is committed to helping them, and is putting policies in place that actually do that. Kevin?

WELKER: Just to be clear: You can’t guarantee it.

SANDERS: Look, I haven’t been in every single room. I can tell you the president has addressed this directly — he’s addressed it directly to the American people. And I can tell you what the focus and the heart of the president is, and that’s on helping all Americans.

Earlier Tuesday, Manigault Newman shared a 2016 tape with CBS News purportedly of her and two other black Trump campaign aides talking about the possible existence of the tape. A woman on the tape that Manigault Newman identified as spokeswoman Katrina Pierson at one point says: “He said it. He said it. He’s embarrassed.” Pierson, whose previous denials of this recording have now been directly contradicted, has since explained that she was merely trying to placate Manigault Newman.

But the whole thing has lent new credence to the idea that the tape, which before Tuesday was essentially a baseless rumor, might actually exist. What was most striking about the CBS News recording was how quickly the woman identified as Pierson granted the premise that this was something Trump had actually said. To at least one black staffer on the campaign, this fit with what she knew about Trump.

And that appears to be the case with Sanders, too, at least to some degree. And that’s enough for her to not want anything to do with denying it herself.


An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified Katrina Pierson as Kristina.