For President Trump, this is by now a familiar exercise. As of mid-October, Trump’s campaign manager, deputy campaign manager, first national security adviser, personal attorney, political adviser, a campaign foreign policy adviser, a former friend and two people working with his current lawyer had all been arrested, indicted or admitted to committing federal crimes. Over and over, we’ve heard a familiar refrain: I barely knew the guy!
It’s not only people that Trump disavows once it becomes inconvenient. He has repeatedly claimed to have had “nothing to do with” problematic issues, like eminent domain (which he used as a real estate developer), the National Enquirer’s work with his team to bury stories during the campaign and management of the Trump Organization as president.
His denials of knowing people, though, are different — especially because Trump has often appeared in photographs with the people he denies having a relationship with. His celebrity provides something of a shield in that respect, allowing him to claim that, if a photo turns up, it’s just one of thousands of photos in which he has posed over time.
It’s not always a good excuse.
Nov. 8. Trump is asked about Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland.
Who he is: An ambassador appointed by Trump after he contributed $1 million to Trump’s inauguration.
What Trump said about him: Sondland is at the center of the impeachment inquiry, given his repeated (and, on at least one occasion, admitted) efforts to pressure Ukraine into launching investigations that would be politically useful to Trump.
Speaking to reporters outside the White House, Trump said he didn’t really know his ambassador.
Except: Sondland had unusual access to Trump, according to an NBC News report last month, one of “a small cadre of ambassadors who enjoy direct and frequent access to Trump.” They spoke on the phone regularly, including right before Trump called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in July.
Trump’s even praised Sondland publicly as a “great American.”
Oct. 10. Trump responds to the arrests of Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas.
Who they are: Associates of Trump’s attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani who, according to Fruman and Parnas’s attorney, worked with Giuliani in his representation of Trump.
What Trump said about them: “I don’t know those gentleman,” Trump told reporters outside the White House. “Now, it’s possible I have a picture with them because I have a picture with everybody. I don’t know them, I don’t know about them, I don’t know what they do.”
Except: The pictures Parnas and Fruman had with Trump weren’t just garden-variety campaign rally selfies. In May 2018, Parnas shared a photo with Trump from inside the White House. He mentioned having dinner with the president.
July 9. Trump responds to the arrest of Jeffrey Epstein.
Who he is: A financier who faced charges of sex trafficking before apparently killing himself in jail.
What Trump said about him: “I knew him like everybody in Palm Beach knew him,” Trump said. “I was not a fan of his, that I can tell you.”
Except: In 2002, Trump was more effusive.
“I’ve known Jeff for fifteen years,” he said then. “Terrific guy. He’s a lot of fun to be with.”
There are numerous photos of the pair available online. NBC News released footage of them talking together at a party in 1992.
May 17. New information is released about Michael Flynn.
Who he is: An adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign who eventually served briefly as Trump’s national security adviser.
What Trump said about him: “It now seems the General Flynn was under investigation long before was common knowledge,” Trump said in a tweet. “It would have been impossible for me to know this.”
After Flynn was indicted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s team, the White House also tried to play down his importance to Trump.
Except: He was Trump’s national security adviser. What’s more, the Mueller report shows that Trump should have known exactly the extent to which Flynn was under investigation before he joined the administration.
February. Trump plays down his relationship with Roger Stone.
Who he is: A longtime adviser to Trump who often encouraged Trump to run for president.
What Trump said about him: After Stone was arrested as part of the Mueller probe, Trump tried to isolate Stone’s role as an adviser.
“Now you know Roger didn’t work for me in the campaign,” he told the New York Times on Feb. 1.
“Roger Stone didn’t work on the campaign, except way, way at the beginning, long before we’re talking about,” he said two days later. “Roger is somebody that I’ve always liked, but a lot of people like Roger. Some people probably don’t like Roger, but Roger Stone’s somebody I’ve always liked. … Roger wasn’t on my campaign except way at the beginning.”
Except: There’s evidence that, beyond their long-standing friendship, Stone was involved in Trump’s campaign later than Trump admits. For example, Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen told Mueller’s team that Stone had given Trump a heads-up about the release of information from WikiLeaks in July 2016.
Oct. 16, 2018. Trump responds to news reports about Stormy Daniels.
Who she is: An adult-film actress who claims to have had sex with Trump in 2006 and who received $130,000 from Michael Cohen to bury that story before the 2016 election.
What Trump said about her: “I had nothing to do with her,” Trump said. “So she can lie and she can do whatever she wants to do.”
Sept. 7, 2018. Trump discusses the sentencing of George Papadopoulos.
Who he is: A former foreign policy adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign.
What Trump said about him: “I don’t know Papadopoulos. I don’t know him,” Trump said. “I saw him sitting, in one picture, at a table with me. That’s the — that’s the only thing I know about him. I don’t know him. But they got him on — I guess, a couple of lies, is what they’re saying.”
That was tonally different from what Trump said about Papadopoulos back in October 2017.
“Few people knew the young, low level volunteer named George,” Trump tweeted, “who has already proven to be a liar.”
Except: Trump is correct that Papadopoulos was photographed sitting at a table with him — during a foreign policy advisory meeting in March 2016. Trump tweeted the photo; Papadopoulos is sitting facing the camera, second from the left.
The “lies” Trump describes involved Papadopoulos misleading federal investigators about when he learned that Russia had emails incriminating Hillary Clinton.
Aug. 23, 2018. Trump responds to the conviction of Paul Manafort.
Who he is: Manafort served as Trump’s campaign manager.
What Trump said about him: “I didn’t know Manafort well,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News. “He wasn’t with the campaign long.”
In August 2017, Trump similarly played down Manafort’s role.
“I know Mr. Manafort — I haven’t spoken to him in a long time, but I know him,” Trump said. “He was with the campaign, as you know, for a very short period of time, relatively short period of time.”
Except: Manafort joined the campaign in March 2016, rising to campaign manager in June. Trump fired him in August after reporting that suggested Manafort had received under-the-table payments from a Ukrainian political party.
That’s a period of about five months. Manafort was with the campaign substantially longer than, say, Kellyanne Conway, now counselor to the president.
Aug. 23, 2018. Trump responds to Michael Cohen’s guilty plea.
Who he is: Trump’s former personal attorney.
What Trump said about him: “He’s been a lawyer for me. Didn’t do big deals, did small deals. Not somebody that was with me that much,” Trump said in that same Fox interview. “They make it sound like I didn’t live without him. … He was somebody that was probably with me for about 10 years. And I would see him sometimes, but when I had deals and big deals I had outside lawyers, and I have a lot of inside lawyers, too, in addition to Michael.”
Except: There is plenty of reason to think that Cohen and Trump interacted much more often and intimately than Trump suggests. Cohen recorded interactions with Trump, including one from late in the campaign in which the pair walk through a number of campaign-related issues. Cohen was an advocate for Trump on cable news shows during the campaign and was involved in significant projects, like Trump’s push for an office tower in Moscow.
Speaking of that tower, Trump also in July 2018 played down his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“President Putin has to respect what we’ve done,” he said at that point. “I don’t know him. I met him a couple of times. I met him at the G-20. I think we could probably get along very well.”
That’s not what Trump said during the campaign.