For nearly half an hour on Thursday night, Kellyanne Conway, senior adviser to President Trump, battled CNN’s Chris Cuomo over a wide range of topics, beginning with new revelations about Trump’s involvement in hush-money payments to two women during the 2016 campaign.
Conway is renowned for two things in particular: her indefatigable defenses of her boss and her ability to reshape a conversation in a way that better allows her to offer those defenses. Both were consistent in the conversation with Cuomo. But, given the subject matter, she was repeatedly forced into an unavoidable paradox: defending the veracity of a president who frequently lies.
Consider this line about Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen, who stated under oath that Trump directed him to make payments in order to keep stories of alleged marital infidelity under wraps before the election. This defense might someday be entered into the Spin Hall of Fame.
“You’re imbuing credibility to people who are playing to your wishful thinking,” Conway said. “You shouldn’t do that.” Then, without missing a beat: “The president of the United States said he never directed Michael Cohen to break the law.”
This was a repeated argument of Conway’s, pitting Cohen’s assertions against Trump’s, as though the two were equivalent.
Here was her framing early in the conversation.
“The most important thing the president just said that goes to the essential case here, is that he never directed Michael Cohen to break the law. Why is that not important or credible to you?” she asked. Then, a quick pivot: “It’s important and credible to the rest of the country, except for the people so blinded by their hatred towards him or their wishful thinking that he won’t be president if they just close their eyes and click their heels three times, he really won’t be president and someone else will be, or she will be.”
“She,” of course, being Hillary Clinton.
Cuomo’s response was that his skepticism of Trump was not a function of his wish Trump hadn’t won the election but, instead, a function of Trump’s having lied repeatedly in the past — including about the payment to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels. In April, speaking to reporters on Air Force One, Trump was asked if he knew about the $130,000 payment Cohen made to Daniels. Trump said he didn’t and suggested that reporters ask Cohen about the payment.
Here are Cuomo and Conway on Thursday. It’s long, but it’s important to follow the back-and-forth. At one point Cuomo mentions David Pecker, the chief executive of American Media Inc., which publishes the National Enquirer.
CUOMO: He said on the plane, I know nothing about the Stormy Daniels --
CONWAY: Not a fact. When the payment was made. That’s what he meant.
CUOMO: He said, I don’t know anything about it, ask my lawyer.
CONWAY: No, no, no, I asked him specifically --
CUOMO: The truth is, he knew everything about it.
CONWAY: Christopher, that was April.
CUOMO: We have him on tape saying it. David Pecker, who’s a party to it, says he was there. It’s incontrovertible, that is why prosecutors believe it.
CONWAY: Whoa! It is not. You’re way offline, you’re showing partisan stripes, respectfully.
CUOMO: Am I?
CONWAY: You cannot say it’s incontrovertible. Yes. You cannot say it’s incontrovertible when it’s based on plea agreements by individuals --
CUOMO: That he knew? Incontrovertible.
CONWAY: Hold on. That’s not true. Hold on. ... The president said in April, on Air Force One, they said, did you know about the payments? He said no. I asked the president, what did you mean by that? Because by April of 2018 the whole world knew, based on the Stormy Daniels revelation.
CUOMO: Good point. Why did he lie?
CONWAY: So, he wasn’t talking about what he knew in April. He did not lie! He’s talking about when the payment was made. I asked him that, and I said it on a couple Sunday shows that very next weekend in April or May, because I asked him, what did you mean? And he told me.
CUOMO: Why didn’t he ever clarify it?
CONWAY: I have the benefit and the privilege of asking the president. Hold on, he sends me, we do. We did qualify. It’s important. Christopher, in April of 2018, Donald J. Trump, the president, and everybody else were told about the payments.
CUOMO: He knew about it from its inception. He came up with the plan.
CONWAY: No, no, no, hold on. You’re saying ‘incontrovertible’ based on the testimony of people who are trying to get a better deal and a lighter sentence for themselves. Be fair here.
Trump’s response to the reporter’s question was a flat “No,” with a shake of the head. Conway’s right that, in April 2018, everyone knew about the payment, of course — but therefore it’s obvious that Trump wasn’t telling the reporter that he himself was not aware of those news reports. Cuomo’s specifically taking issue with the idea that Trump denied knowing about the payment at the time it was made, which is obviously what Trump was doing — but Conway frames the issue as Cuomo having incorrect information.
Eventually, Conway answers the real question: Why did Trump lie about not knowing about the payment when it was made? Her answer is simple. Those who are asserting that he did are lying to get better deals for themselves.
In other words, Conway is claiming that Cohen’s assertion under penalty of perjury that Trump knew about and directed the payments to Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal — a payment that was made through AMI — was false and made to get less time in prison. Further, she’s arguing that Pecker, a longtime friend of Trump’s, is also lying (under penalty of law) to reduce the criminal penalties he and his company faced.
Trump has claimed in the past that he didn’t know until later that the payment was made, though never under penalty of perjury. His tweets about the deal on Thursday morning are much less robust, suggesting that he had spoken with Cohen at the time of the payments and trusting Cohen’s advice.
Are the sworn statements of Cohen and AMI “incontrovertible”? No, but Trump’s claims about Stormy Daniels — which The Washington Post’s fact-checkers took the unusual step of outright describing as lies — are far less trustworthy than theirs, for obvious reasons.
I mean, let’s just highlight this claim from Conway: “You’re saying ‘incontrovertible’ based on the testimony of people who are trying to get a better deal and a lighter sentence for themselves.” And what’s Trump trying to do? What’s Conway’s goal? Neither of them has motivation to mislead the American public?
Cuomo bolstered his argument about the lack of credibility Trump had earned by noting the conflict between Trump’s assertions about not having any deals in Russia and the recent revelation that, in fact, a development project in Moscow was under consideration as late as June 2016.
“Frankly and unfortunately, he lies a lot,” Cuomo said of Trump. “That’s why, just like Michael Cohen--”
“He’s doing a great job,” Conway interjected.
“His credibility is suspect,” Cuomo replied.
“He’s doing a great job for this country,” Conway said, lamenting that Cuomo apparently didn’t care that Americans have “more money in their pockets” or that manufacturing jobs numbers have increased. She later accused Cuomo of using a “slur” against Trump: Saying that he lies.
Conway’s well-established gambit is to pivot criticism of Trump back into criticism of those asking questions. Cuomo’s questions were framed as partisan bias, as distracting from the real issues (like opioids and border security — and, in one extended riff, the White House daily schedule) and as efforts to pander to CNN’s anti-Trump viewer base. Her sole robust defense of the question at hand was the one she offered above. Trump says Cohen is lying, and therefore Cohen is lying.
“Here’s what I think,” Conway said at one point in the conversation, “you need a better relationship with the truth, and not the truth as you want it to be.”
The irony of that statement in that moment is staggering.