Op-Ed

When Trump spokesmen say they ‘don’t know,’ don’t always buy it

Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told the media she knows nothing about the president’s communication with this son about his meetings with Russians during the campaign.
Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told the media she knows nothing about the president’s communication with this son about his meetings with Russians during the campaign. AP

The Washington Post’s report that President Donald Trump dictated his son’s misleading statement about meeting with a Russian lawyer contradicts previous denials by Jay Sekulow, Trump’s personal lawyer. But one person without egg on her face is White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who pleaded ignorance when asked repeatedly about the president’s involvement.

In hindsight, Sanders’ shrugs look like signals that Trump was hiding something — perhaps even from his own spokeswoman — and provide clues about how to detect secrets in the future.

1. Pay attention to things that White House spokesmen say they “don’t know” or “haven’t asked” about. These types of answers are given frequently.

2. Watch for times when the White House declines to repeat the claims of Trump’s personal legal team.

The statement at the root of The Post’s report was issued to the New York Times when it reported July 8 that Donald Trump Jr. met last summer with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer. Here’s the key passage: “We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government, but it was not a campaign issue at the time and there was no followup.”

That version of events was, at best, a partial truth. The Times reported a day later that the premise of the meeting was that the Russian lawyer would share damaging information about Hillary Clinton.

Naturally, the genesis of the original statement — with its glaring omission — interested journalists. Was the president involved?

At an off-camera news briefing on July 11, Sanders was asked when Trump and Trump Jr. had spoken last. She said she did not know.

That night, the Times reported that the president had signed off on his son’s statement.

On “Good Morning America” the next day, Sekulow disputed the Times’s report. “The president didn’t sign off on anything,” Sekulow said. “He was coming back from the G-20 [summit], the statement that was released on Saturday was released by Donald Trump Jr. and, I’m sure, in consultation with his lawyers. The president wasn’t involved in that.”

At an off-camera briefing hours later, however, Sanders wouldn’t repeat Sekulow’s denial. This was her exchange with The Post’s Philip Rucker, one of the reporters behind Monday’s scoop:

RUCKER: Has President Trump had any communication with his son, Donald Trump Jr., over the last several days? And was he involved in helping Donald Trump Jr. craft his statement to the press over the weekend on Air Force One, as was reported in the New York Times?

SANDERS: I’m not sure about specific communications and the nature of those conversations. I know that they’ve spoken at least at some point over the last few days, but beyond that I don’t have any other further details.

RUCKER: Has he helped him with his response?

SANDERS: Not that I’m aware of, but I just don’t know the answer to that, Phil.

RUCKER: So is that not true?

SANDERS: I’ve been telling you, I’m just not sure. I don’t know the answer. I’ll have to check and let you know.

RUCKER: Okay. Can you find out?

SANDERS: Yeah.”

Sanders never followed up with reporters. It is certainly possible that she truly did not know whether the president was involved in crafting the statement; if that is the case, then she was remarkably incurious. Perhaps it was best not to know.

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