Why the White House won't 'guarantee' there's no tape of Trump using the N-word

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders holds the daily briefing at the White House, September 12, 2017.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders holds the daily briefing at the White House, September 12, 2017.

There have been unsubstantiated rumors for quite a while of possible tapes, recoded during Donald Trump's time as a reality-show personality, using racist language behind the scenes. Omarosa Manigault Newman, a former White House aide, claims she's heard a recording of the president using the N-word.

The allegations led to a rather striking exchange at yesterday's press briefing.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Tuesday that she could not "guarantee" that there are no recordings of President Donald Trump using the N-word."I've never heard him use that term or anything similar," Sanders said in response to a series of questions from NBC's Kristen Welker about whether he's ever used the racial slur. Asked if she could promise that Americans would never hear him say it on a recording, she declined. "I can't guarantee anything, but I can tell you the president addressed this question directly," she said, though she acknowledged that she had never asked him the question herself.

Sanders added, "Look, I haven't been in every single room."

It wasn't much of an answer. If we asked a White House spokesperson from the previous administration if Barack Obama had ever talked about launching a full-scale military invasion of Antarctica, we wouldn't hear, "I can't guarantee anything. I haven't been in every room."

Instead, we'd hear something categorical, such as, "No, that's stupid."

Similarly, if reporters asked Sanders if there's a recording of her boss planning a nude barbecue on the South Lawn, I imagine she'd be comfortable guaranteeing that such a tape does not exist.

But Sanders wasn't willing to rule out the possibility of a recording of Trump using racist slurs, suggesting that she believes such a tape may, in fact, exist -- and suggesting she believes the president may be capable of such behavior. That in turn raises two angles of interest.

The first, obviously, is that the rumors about such a tape are suddenly easier to believe. There's room for debate about what would happen if such a recording reached the public -- I'm not convinced it would have a dramatic impact, since the president's racism is already obvious and well documented -- but the latest developments will only serve to raise the volume on the speculation.

But let's not overlook the second angle: Sarah Huckabee Sanders is starting to hedge on Trump's credibility.

Last year, the White House press secretary put her credibility on the line when she said the president wasn't involved with the creation of a deceptive press statement on the infamous Trump Tower meeting. We later learned, from the president's own attorneys, that Sanders' claims were false.

In practice, it appeared to be a situation in which she relied on Trump to tell her the truth; he didn't; and she was caught holding the bag.

The result is an important shift in posture. The president insists there is no tape, and the N-word isn't in his vocabulary, but the president has an alarming habit of lying on a nearly daily basis. At some level, Sanders must be aware of this.

And as a consequence, we're seeing evidence of the press secretary taking steps to protect herself. Trump may say there's no tape, but Sanders can't "guarantee" that his denial is true. The president may claim that the N-word isn't his vocabulary, but the press secretary hasn't been "in every single room" with Trump, and she apparently isn't comfortable vouching for him.

It's at least possible that a recording will emerge featuring the president using racist language, and Sanders doesn't want to have to deal with another round of questions about why her claims turned out to be wrong. So, yesterday, she was careful, referring reporters to Trump's denials, without fully endorsing them herself.

When a president starts losing a credibility fight in his own White House, it's emblematic of a much larger problem.