It turns out Sarah Huckabee Sanders isn’t the only one.
I and others noted Tuesday afternoon how conspicuous it was that Sanders wouldn’t totally deny that President Trump had used the n-word. “I can’t guarantee anything,” she said, adding later: “Look, I haven’t been in every single room.”
But it appears this is actually a bit of a growing trend from Trump spokesmen, who more and more refuse to personally vouch for him.
Appearing on CNN on Tuesday night, Trump campaign spokeswoman Katrina Pierson, like Sanders, said she couldn’t completely rule it out. “I reject the question,” Pierson said. “I mean, how could you sit there and ask somebody if they know anything that’s not about themselves?"
Earlier in the day Tuesday, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway had also declined to completely deny that Trump did things she may not have witnessed. “I know nothing about it, actually,” Conway said. 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.”
But it wasn’t just about the n-word. In a separate appearance Tuesday afternoon on MSNBC, White House spokesman Marc Lotter was asked if he could definitively deny another of Omarosa Manigault Newman’s claims: that Trump had advance notice of WikiLeaks releasing Hillary Clinton’s emails -- a possibility that would be damning for Trump in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation. Lotter, too, declined to completely rule anything out beyond what he personally could attest to.
“I had no indication that anything was coming before we knew it was actually coming out,” he said.
The pattern has become more pronounced, but it isn’t completely new. Previously, White House spokesmen have referred to Trump’s own comments rather than supplying their own defenses in response to questions about Trump’s alleged affair with Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal, Trump’s baseless claim that President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign, and Trump’s other unfounded assertion that millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 election.
“The president does believe that,” [press secretary Sean] Spicer said Jan. 24, 2017. He added: “I think the president has believed that for a while based on studies and information he has,” and then, “as I’ve noted several times now, he’s believed this for a long time.” When reporters noted that Spicer kept attributing the belief to Trump and asked whether he agreed, Spicer demurred, saying it wasn’t “my job” to opine on the issue.
The strategy makes logical sense. These spokesmen, as Sanders and Pierson noted, cannot have witnessed everything that happened even while they were working at the highest levels of the Trump campaign and the White House. It’s just not possible to be omniscient.
But here’s the thing: They are spokesmen. It’s assumed that they are speaking for the president. It’s the very definition of their jobs. When they deny something, they are denying it on behalf of the president. When they talk about Trump’s conspiracy theories, they are presenting the company line as it is defined by the president.
The mere fact that they seek to carve out this line between Trump’s denials and what they can personally vouch for is a reflection of a couple things.
First, it shows they don’t trust Trump. Many Trump theories are so baseless and many Trump denials have been so utterly disproven that the people who have vouched for them have wound up seeing their own credibility diminished. Case in point: Sean Spicer.
But even more than that, the specific instances in which this strategy has been employed suggest these spokesmen themselves are skeptical of Trump’s claims and denials.
A tape released by Manigault Newman on Tuesday morning included a woman identified as Pierson saying of Trump’s alleged use of the n-word: “He said it. He said it.” Pierson now claims she was only trying to placate Manigault Newman, but the tape suggests the n-word was very much something that Pierson thought could be in Trump’s vocabulary. So just as Spicer was as dubious as the rest of us about Trump’s claim of millions of illegal votes, and just as White House spokesmen have been rightly skeptical of Trump’s Russia and affair denials (based upon Trump’s past behavior in both realms), they’re now perhaps legitimately skeptical that the n-word is something Trump would never say.
But the fact that they won’t even deny something so heinous still says a lot, given that these are the people who have personally elected to speak for Trump and the gravity of that potential offense.