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President Trump employed a now-familiar refrain on Tuesday when asked by reporters in London to comment on Prince Andrew, Queen Elizabeth’s younger son, who has been linked to the disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein. While awaiting trial on sex-trafficking charges in jail, Epstein allegedly killed himself.
“I don’t know Prince Andrew,” Trump responded, “but it’s a tough story.”
Although the president has been photographed with the prominent member of the royal family on numerous occasions, Trump doubled down on his claim. “I don’t know him, no,” he said of Andrew, who has retreated to private life after a woman who said she was part of Epstein’s teenage sex ring identified the prince as one of her abusers.
Over the years, Trump has denied meeting or knowing many people, including former Defense Secretary Robert Gates; retired Marine Gen. John Allen; New York Times columnist David Brooks; former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and an unnamed woman who claimed he kissed her in the lobby of Trump Tower. Since becoming president, Trump has often tried to distance himself from known associates who have become political liabilities. In the past few months alone, the White House has seemingly put that alibi on a “tape loop” when asked about the witnesses testifying in the House impeachment inquiry. While Trump clearly doesn’t know, or doesn’t remember meeting, some of them, in other cases his denials have the definite ring of implausibility. Here’s a partial sampling:
One day after Bill Taylor, acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, gave his deposition to House investigators in which he described the Trump administration’s efforts to convince Kyiv to investigate Joe Biden and his son, Trump responded in a tweet.
Asked by White House reporters in November about the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, who he fired in May at the behest of Rudy Giuliani, Trump was resolute.
“I really don’t know her,” Trump said of Yovanovitch, but went on to say that he had relieved her of her post because he had lost confidence in her. During his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump called Yovanovitch “bad news” and said she was “going to go through some bad things.”
Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman
“I don’t know those gentlemen,” Trump told reporters in October about Parnas and Fruman, two mysterious Soviet-born associates of Rudy Giuliani, after their indictment on campaign finance charges. “Now it’s possible I have a picture with them because I have a picture with everybody.”
In fact, several pictures have turned up showing Trump with the two men, who appear to have been at the center of the effort to convince Ukraine’s government to announce an investigation of Biden. After Trump disavowed him, Parnas, miffed over the snub, ditched his Trump-connected lawyer for a new one who says his client has “hard evidence” of wrongdoing within the administration.
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman
A National Security Council expert who listened in on Trump’s July 25 call with Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky gave damaging testimony at a House hearing.
“It was improper for the president to request, to demand an investigation into a political opponent, especially a foreign power where there is at best dubious belief that this could be an impartial investigation and that this would have significant implications if it became public knowledge,” Vindman told the House Intelligence Committee.
That same day, Trump sought to make clear that he didn’t know Vindman, despite the fact that he works in the White House. “I don't know Vindman at all,” Trump said during a Cabinet meeting. “I never heard of him.”
Testifying alongside Vindman, State Dept. official and national security adviser to the vice president Jennifer Williams told lawmakers that she found Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky to be “inappropriate.” Notwithstanding that Williams had been on the call, Trump asserted she didn’t have enough information to render a judgment on it.
Before Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, agreed to testify before the House Intelligence Committee, Trump praised him as “a really good man and great American.”
Sondland, a businessman who runs a hotel chain and had no government or international experience, donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural fund. After his appointment, Sondland played a leading role in relaying Trump’s requests to Zelensky.
Asked if Trump offered to reinstate suspended military aid to Ukraine in exchange for a public announcement of an investigation into the Bidens, Sondland testified:
“I know that members of this committee frequently frame these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a quid pro quo? As I testified previously with regard to the requested White House call and the White House meeting, the answer is yes.”
Later that day, Trump walked back his association with Sondland.
“I don’t know him very well. I have not spoken to him much,” Trump told reporters.
It seems that a surefire way for Trump to forget that he knows a person is for them to criticize the president. When rap music producer and former “Celebrity Apprentice” contestant Lil John called Trump an “Uncle Tom,” Trump told Yahoo News reporter Hunter Walker, “I don’t know who Lil Jon is. I don’t — I really don’t.”
Trump’s own tweets threw that claim into question, however.
Though he had once referred to Papadopoulos, an adviser to his campaign, as “an energy and oil consultant, excellent guy,” Trump’s memory grew hazy following Papadopolous’s guilty plea on charges that he lied to the FBI about his contacts with Russia during the 2016 presidential election.
“I don’t know him. I saw him sitting, in one picture, at a table with me. That’s the — that’s the only thing I know about him,” Trump told reporters.
Papadopolous’s boast in May of 2016 to an Australian diplomat that Russia had dirt on Hillary Clinton is cited by the FBI as the reason it begin its investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. Eventually, that probe became the basis for the Mueller report, the final version of which included the following passage about Trump’s memory of events:
“We noted, among other things, that the President stated on more than 30 occasions that he ‘does not recall’ or ‘remember’ or have an ‘independent recollection’ of information called for by the questions. Other answers were ‘incomplete or imprecise.’”
As with Sondland, Trump has described his relationship with his former communications director (who lasted in the position for only a week and a half in 2017) in conflicting terms. Despite knowing Scaramucci for years in New York and co-hosting fundraisers with him for 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney at Trump’s Manhattan penthouse, Trump claimed he “barely knew him” before appointing him to his position in the White House, which he lost after he indulged in a profanity-laced rant to a reporter.
Scaramucci has since become a Trump critic who compared the president’s loyal Republican backers to officials of the Nazi-era Vichy government in France.
The sliding scale Trump applies to what qualifies regarding knowing people has also been applied to Russia’s president. As accusations of Russian election meddling began heating up during the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump gave an interview to ABC News. He attempted to explain away his past statements about Putin, including his 2014 assertion that “I was in Russia, I was in Moscow recently. And I spoke indirectly — and directly — with President Putin, who could not have been nicer,” and his claim in 2015 that “I got to know him [Putin] very well because we were both on ‘60 Minutes.’” (They were, but on separate continents.) His back and forth with “This Week” host George Stephanopoulos in July of 2016 helps illustrate how the president frames, and occasionally reframes, his interactions.
STEPHANOPOULOS: What exactly is your relationship with Vladimir Putin?
TRUMP: I have no relationship to — with him. I have no relationship with him.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But if you have no relationship with Putin, then why did you say in 2013, I do have a relationship. In 2014, I spoke —
TRUMP: Because he has said nice things about me over the years. I remember years ago, he said something — many years ago, he said something very nice about me. I said something good about him when Larry King was on. This was a long time ago. And I said he is a tough cookie or something to that effect.
He said something nice about me. This has been going on. We did “60 Minutes” together. By the way, not together-together, meaning he was probably shot in Moscow —
STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, he was in Moscow —
TRUMP: — and I was shot in New York.
STEPHANOPOULOS: — you were in New York. But that’s the thing.
TRUMP: No, just so you understand, he said very nice things about me, but I have no relationship with him. I don’t — I’ve never met him.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Yet you said for three years, ’13, ’14 and ’15, that you did have a relationship with him.
TRUMP: No, look, what — what do you call a relationship?
I mean he treats me —
STEPHANOPOULOS: I’m asking you.
TRUMP: — with great respect. I have no relationship with Putin. I don’t think I’ve ever met him. I never met him. I don’t think I’ve ever met him.
STEPHANOPOULOS: You would know if you did.
TRUMP: I think so.
STEPHANOPOULOS: I mean if he —
TRUMP: Yes, I think so. So I’ve — I don’t think I've ever met him. I mean if he’s in the same room or something. But I don’t think so.
STEPHANOPOULOS: You never spoke to him on the phone?
TRUMP: I’ve been in Moscow. I didn’t meet him in Moscow. Where?
STEPHANOPOULOS: You’ve never spoken to him on the phone?
TRUMP: I have never spoken to him on the phone, no. I’ve speak — I’ve spoken — when we had the Miss Universe contest a number of years ago, we had Miss Universe in Moscow, in the Moscow area, he was invited. He wanted to come. He wasn’t able to come.
That would have been a time when I would have met him.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But a — I just want to clear this up, because you did say on three different occasions you had a relationship with him. Now you say there is not.
TRUMP: Well, I don’t know what it means by having a relationship. I mean he was saying very good things about me, but I don’t have a relationship with him. I didn’t meet him. I haven’t spent time with him.
Since that interview, Trump has met Putin many times, and has not had occasion to deny it.
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