The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kayleigh McEnany makes a thoroughly Trump-ian debut

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany departs after holding a news briefing at the White House on Friday. (Chris Kleponis/Pool/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

A White House press secretary held a briefing for the first time in more than 13 months Friday, with newcomer Kayleigh McEnany dusting off the old mainstay for at least one day.

And while the briefing carried promises of no lies and featured a relatively steady performance, the old, factually challenged mainstays of past briefings — and President Trump’s own commentary — were readily present.

At the start, McEnany said there would be more briefings than there have been for the past year-plus. The press secretary she replaced, Stephanie Grisham, went her entire tenure without holding even one. McEnany was haunted by her predecessors in more ways than one, though, as one of the early questions was about whether she would lie to the news media.

“I will never lie to you,” she said. “You have my word on that.”

What followed, though, didn’t exactly scream sudden truth or transparency from the White House press office.

For one, McEnany echoed Trump’s false claim about the Russia investigation, saying it had amounted to “the complete and total exoneration of President Trump.”

In fact, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report made a point to note that it couldn’t absolve Trump of obstruction of justice, regardless of the evidence. Attorney General William P. Barr took the ball from there and declined to accuse Trump of that, but it’s false to say that Trump was completely exonerated by the investigation — especially given the extensive evidence Mueller laid out on potential obstruction.

In the service of making the above point, McEnany also alleged the Mueller investigation had cost $40 million — a claim Trump made in late 2018. In fact, the cost was $32 million, according to the Justice Department. Much of that was recouped, thanks to seizures related to the investigation, including from former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

At another point, McEnany sought to downplay comparisons between an allegation of sexual assault recently lodged against Joe Biden by a former aide, Tara Reade, and the many similar allegations that Trump has faced.

“Leave it to the media to really take an issue about the former vice president and turn it on the president and bring up accusations from four years ago that were asked and answered in the form of the vote of the American people,” McEnany said.

In fact, perhaps the most serious allegation leveled against Trump — one of rape — was brought just a few months ago by journalist E. Jean Carroll. And regardless, while Trump has pushed the idea that a successful election absolves him of fault in the face of such allegations, that it isn’t how the criminal justice system works.

On the same point, McEnany referred to the decades-old “salacious, awful and verifiably false allegations that were made against Justice Kavanaugh.” While the allegations were not proven and Kavanaugh was confirmed, they were not “verifiably” proven false.

McEnany also re-upped a claim she has made in recent days, saying that despite early questions about the capacity of the United States to provide enough ventilators amid the coronavirus outbreak, “not a single American has died for lack of a ventilator.”

As the coronavirus spread, incoming White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany initially downplayed the threat before touting the president’s response to it. (Video: The Washington Post)

Exactly how McEnany knows this to be true isn’t clear. This is a claim that is very difficult to make without exhaustively accounting for the situation at every hospital across the country. Reporting has indicated that two people had to be hooked up to the same ventilator, for instance, and BuzzFeed News and other news organizations have indicated that difficult decisions have been made when deciding who can be put on ventilators. In one case, Time magazine reported that a terminally ill person on a ventilator had to be removed in favor of someone with the coronavirus, and that the person later died.

Perhaps McEnany’s most easily disproven comments, though, came with regard to former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn. Trump and Flynn’s other backers have in recent days spotlighted newly revealed notes from the law enforcement officials whom Flynn lied to, arguing that they had set him up. (For reasons described here, that argument is problematic, at best.)

McEnany said there was “a handwritten FBI note that says, quote, we need to get Flynn to lie, quote, and get him fired.”

Except that’s not at all an actual quote. In fact, as The Washington Post’s Philip Bump reports, the notes instead considered whether that was the goal — in light of evidence that the officials already believed to be damning. The notes McEnany cited, in fact, argued against allowing Flynn to lie by presenting him with the evidence against him — evidence that made clear his denials about his contacts with the then-Russian ambassador were false.

The actual quote was: “What’s our goal? Truth/Admission or to get him to lie, so we can prosecute him or get him fired?”

McEnany’s entire performance recalled that of her predecessors, in that she was effectively relaying claims that Trump has made — but claims that nonetheless exaggerate, make up or completely disregard the facts.

And by the end, McEnany served up a reminder about just who she intended to please with all of it.

“Everyone should watch the Fox News town hall with the president from 7 to 9 p.m. [on Sunday],” McEnany said. “It will be can’t-miss television, much like the highly rated President Trump coronavirus task force briefings have been.”

Trump has repeatedly played up the ratings of his now-shelved coronavirus briefings, and there was his new press secretary with a message the boss will love — along with all the others that don’t exactly pass muster.

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