Monday, President Trump was asked for the latest news on the possible murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist and Post contributor who entered the Saudi Consulate in Turkey and disappeared. Here’s some of what Trump said, based on his conversation with Saudi King Salman:
“The king firmly denied any knowledge of it,” Trump said to the press after his phone call with the Saudi king. “He didn’t really know, maybe, I don’t want to get into his mind but it sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers, who knows?”
Pressed on whether he believed King Salman’s denials, the president wouldn’t say.
“All I can do is report what he told me. He told me in a very firm way that they had no knowledge of it. He said it very strongly,” Trump said. “His denial to me could not have been stronger, that he had no knowledge. It sounded like he and also the crown prince [Mohanmmed bin Salman] had no knowledge.”
This reminds me of that scene in “The Untouchables,” where Sean Connery tells Kevin Costner, “He pulls a knife? You pull a gun. But if he denies it firmly and strongly, you gotta let him go. That’s the Chicago way.”
This situation is obviously complicated, since the Saudi leadership is not Al Capone’s gang but a longstanding U.S. ally. Nevertheless, when Trump starts talking about how firmly and strongly someone denied something, it shows you that he realizes there’s an allegation with compelling evidence against one of his own friends, associates, or supporters, but he’s eager to dismiss it as a he said/she said. Truth, or what passes for it, can be found in the vigor of the denial.
Here are just a few other examples:
- “He denies it, look, he denies it. If you look at what is really going on and you look at all the things that have happened over the last 48 hours, he totally denies it.” — Trump on Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, accused of improper sexual conduct with multiple underage girls
- “I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.” — Trump on whether Russia meddled in the 2016 election
- “He says he’s innocent, and I think you have to remember that. He said very strongly yesterday that he’s innocent.” — Trump on former aide Rob Porter, accused of domestic abuse by both his ex-wives
I suppose as long as the denial is strong, and powerful, Trump will believe you. Just make sure to pound the desk a little, maybe raise your voice. That was certainly the message that Brett M. Kavanaugh got: If you want Trump to stick by you, you have to make your denial of misbehavior as loud and belligerent as possible.
I don’t know if Kavanaugh had read Bob Woodward’s book “Fear: Trump in the White House,” but if he had he would have known just what to do, from this passage in which Trump dispenses advice to a friend “who had acknowledged some bad behavior toward women”:
“You’ve got to deny, deny, deny and push back on these women,” he said. “If you admit to anything and any culpability, then you’re dead. That was a big mistake you made. You didn’t come out guns blazing and just challenge them. You showed weakness. You’ve got to be strong. You’ve got to be aggressive. You’ve got to push back hard. You’ve got to deny anything that’s said about you. Never admit.”
This isn’t just a matter of tactics; for Trump it’s about what kind of man you are. Are you weak or strong? Are you going to let people make you feel ashamed for your misdeeds, or are you going to fight back? Even if he isn’t happy about something someone did, he respects them if they deny everything, the more strongly the better.
Just recently Trump mocked former senator Al Franken for resigning after allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced. “Boy, did he fold up like a wet rag, huh?” Trump said. “He was gone so fast. It was like, oh, he did something. ‘Oh, oh, oh, I resign. I quit, I quit.’ Wow.”
The unspoken referent to all this is of course Donald Trump himself. How did he react to the dozen women who came forward in 2016 to say that he harassed or assaulted them? Deny, deny, deny. “Every woman lied when they came forward to hurt my campaign,” he said at the time. “Total fabrication. The events never happened. Never. All of these liars will be sued after the election is over.”
As far as he’s concerned, he was proven right. After all, he’s on tape bragging about his ability to sexually assault women with impunity, and he still got elected. And as he told Lesley Stahl of “60 Minutes” in an interview aired last night, it doesn’t matter whether Christine Blasey Ford was telling the truth about Kavanaugh. “I’m not gonna get into it because we won. It doesn’t matter. We won.”
But of course, the strength of a denial isn’t really Trump’s standard. If he doesn’t want to believe you — let’s say you’re the president of the United States and he wants to spread a racist conspiracy theory that you were actually born in Kenya — you can deny it all you want, as strongly as you want, and he won’t believe you. It’s almost as if whether you’re strong, powerful and manly in your denial isn’t really the point.