Last summer, after the public learned about the infamous Trump Tower meeting between Russian operatives and Trump campaign officials, Donald Trump Jr. issued a highly misleading statement about the pre-election gathering. It wasn’t long before reporters wanted to know if the president was involved in crafting the statement, possibly implicating him in a cover-up.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, speaking from the podium in the West Wing, categorically told journalists that Trump “certainly didn’t dictate” the statement. According to a memo Trump’s lawyers sent to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, however, the president did, in fact, dictate the statement.
Which of these conflicting claims is true? Sanders was offered a chance to set the record straight yesterday – but it didn’t go well.
Q: I want to ask you about the lawyer’s letter to the Special Counsel. You said, last August, that the President did not dictate a statement about the Trump Tower meeting during the campaign. But the lawyers wrote to the Special Counsel that the President did dictate that statement. What’s the reason for that discrepancy?
SANDERS: Like you said, this is from a letter from the outside counsel, and I direct you to them to answer that question.
Another reporter later asked whether she’d like to retract her answer from last summer. “Once again, this is a reference back to a letter from the outside counsel,” Sanders replied. “I can’t answer, and I would direct you to them.”
It was a striking moment. Given a chance to defend her own credibility, the White House press secretary didn’t bother. Reporters are apparently supposed to ask the president’s legal team why Sanders failed to tell the truth about a key detail in an ongoing scandal.
A Washington Post analysis added, “That. Doesn’t. Make. Sense. Sanders delivered wrong information last summer, and she – not the president’s outside legal team – is best positioned to explain why. Yet Sanders insisted over and over Monday that she is the wrong person to answer questions about what she said.”
About a month ago, after some of the White House’s rhetoric about the Stormy Daniels scandal was proven false, ABC News’ Jonathan Karl asked Sanders the kind of question we simply wouldn’t hear in a normal administration: “[W]hen the president so often says things that turn out not to be true, when the president and the White House show what appears to be a blatant disregard for the truth, how are the American people to trust or believe what is said here and what is said by the president?”
The press secretary replied, “We give the very best information that we have at the time.” She ended up repeating the phrase seven times during the 20-minute briefing.
Sanders could’ve returned to that line yesterday, making the case that she thought she was telling the truth last August but she’s since received more information, but in this case, the White House spokesperson skipped it. Instead, we’re supposed to ask Trump’s outside counsel why the president’s spokesperson peddled a false claim from the podium.
It looked as if Sanders was effectively defeated. Struggling to maintain any semblance of credibility, the White House press secretary wouldn’t even bother with the usual half-hearted excuses, choosing instead to pass the buck to the president’s legal defense team, unconcerned with how little sense that made.
The larger debate about the purpose of White House press briefings, and whether reporters should even bother attending, just became more interesting.