The Associated Press this week reminded Donald Trump that his former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, directly implicated him in a felony during a recent court appearance. The president responded by insisting that his former lawyer is “lying,” adding, in reference to the former vice president of the Trump Organization, “Michael Cohen was a PR person who did small legal work, very small legal work.”
As a factual matter, the response plainly wasn’t true. But as a political matter, Trump’s rhetoric was a timely reminder: if you run into trouble, the president will say he does not know you, even if he does.
The New York Times reported today, for example, on what Trump has begun saying behind the scenes about Mohammed bin Salman in the wake of Saudi Arabia’s apparent murder of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
In conversations with allies, the president has begun to distance himself from Prince Mohammed, 33, saying he barely knows him. And he has played down the relationship that Mr. Kushner has cultivated with the Saudi heir.
As of last week, Trump was only too eager to boast about his “excellent” relationship with officials in Riyadh. This week, the Republican’s line is effectively, “Mohammed bin who?” (It’s also far too late to downplay the ties between the crown prince and Trump’s son-in-law and White House aide, Jared Kushner.)
Prince Mohammed has a lot of company on the list of people Trump knows but says he barely knows.
When Paul Manafort was indicted, for example, Trump’s former campaign chairman became some random staffer “who played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time.”
When White House National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was forced to resign in disgrace, Team Trump decided he was “a former Obama administration official” who did some “volunteer” work for the president.
Carter Page was described as someone Trump “does not know.” George Papadopoulos was dismissed as a “coffee boy.” Trump World even tried to downplay its association with Cambridge Analytica, the Trump campaign’s data firm.
No one outside the White House ever takes this rhetoric seriously, but it’s nevertheless the first page of Trump’s playbook.