“I wonder if you can just clean up or clarify something the president said yesterday,” ABC News’s Jonathan Karl said to White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany the following afternoon. “If he loses this election, can you assure us that there will be a peaceful transfer of power?”
It’s worth noting Karl’s slip-up there: He’s done this long enough to know that one of the roles press secretaries generally play is to “clean up” politically problematic remarks for the president. Which is to say, he expected that McEnany would want to spin the comments, reframe them in a way that didn’t suggest that Trump was embracing a refusal to accede in the event of a loss.
But McEnany is not a typical press secretary, just as Trump is not a typical president.
“You are referring to the question asked by the Playboy reporter, right?” McEnany replied. When Karl reiterated his question, McEnany again referred to the questioner’s publication, pointedly emphasizing the word “Playboy.” She then said that the original question reflected the reporter’s “deranged wish” that Trump would leave the White House.
This isn’t a cleanup effort, obviously. Instead, it’s an effort to disparage the question to which Trump was responding, by shaming the men’s magazine for which the reporter worked. Trump’s view of Playboy is not as hostile as McEnany’s response of course, given that he’s appeared on its cover, participated in one of its adult-themed videos and warmly embraced its employees.
“It’s a very direct and very simple question,” Karl continued. “If the president loses this election, will this White House, will this president assure us that there will be a peaceful transfer of power?”
“The president will accept the results of a free and fair election,” McEnany finally replied. She went on to disparage Democrats as being the ones unlikely to accept the election’s results.
“Are the results legitimate only if the president wins?” NBC News’s Peter Alexander asked.
“The president will accept the results of a free and fair election,” McEnany replied, emphasizing “free and fair” as robustly as she did “Playboy” a short while earlier. “He will accept the will of the American people.”
This might seem like a successful cleanup of Trump’s remarks. There you go: He’ll accept the election results. Easy-peasy. But it’s impossible not to understand why McEnany emphasized “free and fair” so pointedly, particularly given where the briefing went next.
“Yesterday when the president said, ‘Get rid of the ballots. There won’t be a transfer, frankly. There will be a continuation,’ which particular ballots is he talking about wanting to get rid of and why does he think that would help him get elected?” a reporter asked.
“The president wants to get rid of mass mail-out voting,” McEnany replied. “And that’s not because it — he’s said clearly that that could go either way, it could damage either candidate’s chances because it’s a system that’s subject to fraud.”
She went on to outline evidence that she suggested supported that idea — ballots found in a ditch in Wisconsin, inflated voter rolls in Los Angeles, concerns expressed by Attorney General William P. Barr, election results in New Jersey, a study from a commission co-chaired by former president Jimmy Carter.
If any of this sounds familiar, it should. Every claim McEnany made has been debunked, lacks context or doesn’t actually make the point she claims it does. In fact, McEnany trotted all of these examples out just a few hours after we comprehensively walked through nearly all of them. We’re not so vain as to think she reads everything we write, but there’s been enough written about each of these subjects to make clear that mail-in ballots aren’t rife with fraud and, moreover, that the vast majority of votes being cast by mail aren’t of the sort about which Trump offers his objections.
In other words, McEnany with one breath asserted that Trump would of course accept the results of a “free and fair election” — and then, with another, introduced all sorts of untrue reasons the results of the election should a priori be considered suspect. Saying that you’ll accept the results of a fair election as you argue that the election will necessarily be unfair is like joining a tontine and then poisoning the other participants.
McEnany declined to actually “clean up” what Trump said. She just rephrased it. Instead of awkwardly transitioning from “we should get rid of mail-in ballots” to “the election will be fair” the way Trump did, she just buried the connection a little deeper.
On his way to North Carolina a few hours later, Trump made McEnany’s point more explicitly.
“We want to make sure the election is honest, and I’m not sure that it can be,” Trump told reporters. “I don’t know that it can be with this whole situation, unsolicited ballots.”
In other words, there has been no change in the White House’s approach to any transition. Just a rephrasing.