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‘I barely know the guy’: To minimize critics, Trump employs selective amnesia

The Debrief: An occasional series offering a reporter’s insights

President Trump, seen here at the White House on Tuesday, repeatedly brushes aside those who oppose him by saying he barely knows them. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump sat across from British Ambassador Kim Darroch during the annual St. Patrick’s Day lunch on Capitol Hill in March, inquiring about Brexit and bragging of his strong political standing, according to people familiar with their exchange.

It wasn’t the first time they met. Trump interacted with Darroch on a number of occasions in London and Washington, and most of the president’s senior aides have attended parties at the luxurious, chandelier-draped embassy in Northwest Washington and met with the ambassador at the White House. 

But after leaked cables showed Darroch criticizing Trump’s administration as “inept” and the president as “insecure,” the president seemed to have a memory lapse. 

“I don’t know the Ambassador but have been told he is a pompous fool,” Trump wrote Tuesday on Twitter. 

The rejoinder fit a familiar pattern for Trump, who is quick to minimize ties with people who criticize him or who find themselves facing an onslaught of negative attention that reflects poorly on the president.

Among those who have gotten the “I barely know the guy” treatment: Former acting attorney general Matthew G. Whitaker, conservative commentator Ann Coulter, former lawyer Michael Cohen, fired FBI director James B. Comey, former senior White House aide Stephen K. Bannon, former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, former State Department official Brett McGurk, longtime adviser Roger Stone, former White House aide Cliff Sims, former campaign aide George Papadopoulos and even the rapper Lil Jon, who starred on Trump’s reality TV show “Celebrity Apprentice.” 

The people change, but the comments are eerily similar — and are something of a joke among some Trump advisers. 

“I hardly even knew this guy,” Trump said of Comey, whom he met with several times in the Oval Office before firing him in May 2017. “I don’t know Whitaker,” Trump said in November about the man he just picked to be attorney general but who was suddenly facing sharp scrutiny. “I barely know him,” Trump said of George T. Conway, the husband of top aide Kellyanne Conway whom he met on a number of occasions, after he lambasted the president on Twitter. At one point, he said Manafort, the former campaign chairman, had “nothing to do with our campaign.”

“I don’t know who Lil Jon is,” Trump said of the rapper who appeared in two seasons of “The Apprentice” and later said that the president called him “Uncle Tom.” “I don’t. I really don’t.”

He has downplayed the role of a number of former administration officials, including White House counsel Donald McGahn and defense secretary Jim Mattis, after they criticized him.

“Steve was rarely in a one-on-one meeting with me and only pretends to have had influence to fool a few people with no access and no clue, whom he helped write phony books,” Trump said of Bannon, his former chief White House strategist and campaign chairman, after the president felt Bannon depicted him negatively in a book by Michael Wolff.

People who know Trump well say he has a sharp memory for remembering people, and the president himself has boasted of having “one of the great memories of all time.” His aim in proclaiming to barely know someone is to minimize the importance of their critical comments or detract from the praise he believes they are unjustly receiving.

On the flip side, people who have barely met Trump can quickly turn into exceptional figures if they lavish the president with praise. He has bragged about dozens of books — and their authors — on Twitter that depict him positively. Aides say he has not read most of the books he has praised.

People who agree with or support him, particularly on Fox News, are often lauded by Trump or become “very respected.” When Trump was in need of a foreign policy team early in his candidacy and Papadopoulos was willing to sit by him, the president deemed him an “excellent guy.”

“The motivating factor on whether he has met someone or he hasn’t is whether the meeting is advantageous to the story he is telling,” said Tim O’Brien, a biographer and author of “TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald.” “Trump constantly creates his own reality when he tells stories about who he has spoken to, who he hasn’t spoken to, or what he has experienced to win the point he is trying to make. It’s not in order to tell the truth.” 

The degree to which Trump has a relationship with someone he claims not to know varies. In the case of Darroch, Trump does not know him particularly well, by all accounts, and the president has never been to the British Embassy. He has not met with the ambassador extensively one on one, U.S. and British officials say, but Darroch has been in every meeting between British Prime Minister Theresa May and Trump, officials say. Darroch said in leaked cables he had met Trump seven or eight times, according to people familiar with the cables’ contents.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment about his interactions with Darroch.

Some people who know Trump have produced records to document their relationship after the president says none exists.

Trump called George Conway — who has become a fervent critic of the president — a “stone cold LOSER,” a “whack job” and a “husband from hell.”

“I barely know him,” Trump said.

But Conway kept a letter from Trump praising his legal abilities after a dispute years ago in which Conway helped the then-real estate magnate, as well as other communications between the two in 2016 and 2017.

“It didn’t surprise me because it is one of his regular go-to lies,” Conway said, chuckling as he recalled Trump’s dismissal of him in an interview. Trump called Sims a “low level gofer” after his book was released earlier this year, which was critical of people in the White House but not the president directly. The former campaign and White House aide declined to comment Tuesday but responded at the time with pictures of the two men. White House aides said the pair regularly saw each other. Sims titled the last chapter in his book “Disposable.” 

The president’s interactions with Comey were extensively documented in former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report and in contemporaneous memos written by the fired FBI director.

Asked Tuesday about Jeffrey Epstein, the financier and convicted sex offender who now faces new charges, Trump said that he was “not a fan” of his and that they had a falling-out years ago, which the president didn’t elaborate on while taking questions from reporters. 

“I don’t think I’ve spoken to him for 15 years,” Trump said. 

In a 2002 interview with New York Magazine before Epstein was in trouble, Trump sang a different tune. 

“I’ve known Jeff for 15 years. Terrific guy. He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side,” Trump said.