In a painfully slippery interview Thursday night with CNN’s Chris Cuomo, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway refused more than a dozen times to affirm that the president had been purposely deceitful when he and his team repeatedly said they didn’t know about the payments to women.
On Tuesday, Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to making or orchestrating those payments. In sworn testimony, he said they were made at the direction of Trump. He’s also released a tape of him and Trump talking about one of the payments before it happened. Trump has now changed his story to say he knew about the payments “later on,” the implication being he wasn’t a co-conspirator in making them.
“Later on I knew. Later on."— Fox News (@FoxNews) August 23, 2018
On @foxandfriends, @POTUS said that "later on" he knew that former attorney Michael Cohen made hush-money payments to adult-film star Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal, and insisted the money did not come from campaign funds. pic.twitter.com/nChRG2VhVl
Conway echoed that on CNN: “The president has said that he has not lied and the president has said that no charges were filed against him in either the Manafort or the Cohen matters, as you know.”
Cuomo asks again why Trump and his team said he didn’t know about the payments when it’s now clear he did. And again and again and again. At one point, they have this exchange, which is pretty typical for the whole interview. She continuously pitches back to the fact the president hasn’t been charged with a crime. (He’s only been implicated in one.)
CUOMO: You keep ducking it. He lied, Kellyanne.CONWAY: I'm ducking. He answered the question.CUOMO: He lied.CONWAY: Why are his words not important to you?CUOMO: Because he's lying. They are important to me. I'm asking about them because they are --CONWAY: What do you think I lied about?CUOMO: -- material misrepresentation of fact for the purposes of deception. It’s a lie.CONWAY: What crime was committed? What charges were filed against Donald Trump this week?CNN, Aug. 23 2018 interview
The Trump White House’s reaction to being caught lying is both remarkable and not surprising. In a week where reality has smacked into the president, he and his allies are retreating further from it. Despite Trump now daily trying to undermine the U.S. judicial system, within one hour this week, two separate courts convicted his former campaign boss with tax and bank fraud and former loyal fixer with financial fraud including violating campaign finance law with those payments.
Trump’s response: To quixotically argue that the federal felonies Cohen pleaded guilty to isn’t a crime. It’s a desperate defense that makes no sense, one that forces its adherents to believe that U.S. law is wrong and Trump is right about what constitutes a campaign finance violation.
A similar example of detachment from reality is the president’s and his allies' refusal to acknowledge he lied about knowing of the illegal 2016 hush-money payments.
The Fact Checker’s Glenn Kessler highlights this April exchange between Trump and reporters on Air Force One about one of those payments:
April 5: Trump flatly tells reporters he did not know about the $130,000 payment.Reporter: “Did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?”Trump: “No, no.”Reporter: “Then why did Michael Cohen make [the payment], if there was no truth to her allegations?”Trump: “You’ll have to ask Michael Cohen. Michael’s my attorney, and you’ll have to ask Michael.”Reporter: “Do you know where he got the money to make that payment?”Trump: “No. I don’t know.”What we know now: Every answer was false. Trump knew about the payment, he knew Cohen made the payment as part of an effort to kill damaging stories, and he knew Cohen was reimbursed.The Washington Post Fact Checker, Aug. 22 2018
There’s still some discrepancy about when he knew about the payments — Cohen says Trump was in on it from the beginning, and Trump says he knew about them later.
But rather than acknowledge the now-indisputable fact that Trump didn’t tell the truth when asked if he knew at all about them, Conway tried to turn the tables by arguing that CNN isn’t trustworthy. At one point she even accused CNN of interfering in the 2016 election, something that the campaign she helped run is under investigation for doing. Whatever you think about the media’s role in 2016, Conway’s attempt to equivocate between CNN and the president and his campaign is completely disingenuous.
The president and his allies have so obstructed reality that we should pause and reground ourselves in it. Why does it matter that Trump lied to the American people and won’t admit it?
For one, telling the truth to anyone, let alone to an entire country, is a baseline of decency. Even more so, most Americans would agree, for a politician.
But even if that baseline has now eroded, the president’s unwillingness to acknowledge the truth does not bode well for what the nation might have to grapple with in the future.
The independent probe into Russian election interference and whether Trump’s campaign helped is still going on. Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, already faces a decade in jail before he goes into a second trial brought by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III in September. After securing guilty pleas from three other former Trump officials, Mueller is expected to, at the very least, release reports on whether he thinks the president’s campaign worked with Russia to win the election and whether he thinks the president obstructed the ensuing investigation. What Mueller will determine is unknown.
But it’s possible that the reports will reveal unpleasant facts for Trump and that he will still refuse to acknowledge them, even if the wrongdoing is staring him and everybody else in the face. Already, the president has refused to truly acknowledge what U.S. intelligence experts have determined: that Russia meddled in the election, specifically to help Trump.
His unwieldy reaction to this week’s hush-money-payment saga is another good indicator of how he’ll respond to what this independent investigation finds.
And Trump may have success in blurring the lines of reality when that time comes. Investigations are rarely so black and white as the facts are around whether the president knew about paying off women who alleged affairs with him. On the more nuanced Russia probe, there’s plenty of evidence that his distortions of reality are taking root. His repeated attacks on Mueller’s integrity are working among Republican voters, polls show. Same with the media. He appears to have brought around a key U.S. senator on replacing Attorney General Jeff Sessions, which was once a thick red line drawn by the Republican Congress.
Trump has given absolutely no indication that when he is faced with damning evidence about his actions, he tells the truth. To the contrary, it seems his reflex is to not tell the truth. That’s what we can expect from the president of the United States going forward, as this week of court trials, guilty pleas and lost allies has underscored.