Trump 'cannot tell a lie' – but can Kayleigh McEnany, his new press secretary?

The latest spokeswoman for the ministry of untruth made an assured debut – but on Covid-19 and more, there were still Trumpian echoes

Channeling George Washington, Donald Trump, who has reportedly made 18,000 false or misleading claims in 1,170 days, recently proclaimed: “I cannot tell a lie.

The president’s ministry of untruth has produced some whoppers over the years. Kellyanne Conway gained immortality with “alternative facts”. Sean Spicer used his first briefing as White House press secretary to inflate the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd. His successor, Sarah Sanders, admitted to lying to reporters about the firing of the FBI director James Comey.

The press secretary Stephanie Grisham never lied from the White House podium – because she never held a press briefing. So when the latest incumbent, Kayleigh McEnany, on Friday held the first such briefing in 417 days, the Associated Press reporter Jill Colvin had a question: “Will you pledge to never lie to us from that podium?”

Without missing a beat, McEnany replied: “I will never lie to you. You have my word on that.”

Expect to hear replays of that line before this presidency is done. Even on what proved an assured debut, McEnany skated close to peddling dodgy information about Trump’s responses to the coronavirus pandemic (“This president has always sided on the side of data”) and to allegations of sexual misconduct (“He has always told the truth”).

But the good news for the White House is that McEnany, 32, benefits by comparison with the desperately low standards of both her boss and her predecessors. Over the past month Trump has been a verbal cannon of insults, mendacity, miracle cures, self-aggrandisement and self-pity, culminating in a proposal about bleach injection to fight Covid-19 that caused him to be metaphorically led away by men in white coats.

Spicer, who turned up at his first briefing in an oversized jacket and a foul mood, often resembled a rabbit caught in headlights, sealing his fate by claiming Adolf Hitler never used chemical weapons. Sanders was an aggressive propagandist on her boss’s behalf. Grisham was missing in action.

But McEnany, a devout Christian dressed in black and wearing a cross around her neck, who set down a binder of notes on a lectern that last year literally gathered dust, has plenty of TV experience and is a more polished performer than any of them. Set against Trump’s word salads, she sounded like a model of concision. Set against his temperament, she was the calm after the storm.

She described Trump as “the most accessible president in history” and insisted his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who recently called the administration’s response to a pandemic which has killed 63,000 Americans a success story, “has done a great job”.

She echoed Trump’s accusation that the World Health Organization “praised China’s leadership on the 22nd and 23rd” of January, without mentioning that on 22 January Trump tweeted “Terrific working with President Xi” and on 24 January wrote: “China has been working very hard to contain the coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well.”

Thankfully for McEnany, reporters were too polite to point out her own remark on 25 February: “We will not see diseases like the coronavirus come here.”

On the contrast between sexual assault allegations against Joe Biden and Brett Kavanaugh, she called the latter “a grave miscarriage of justice” so forcefully one might have assumed Kavanaugh had been destroyed, rather than now sitting on the supreme court.

McEnany also went on the offensive over the FBI’s handling of the case against the former national security adviser Michael Flynn, suggesting it should “should scare every American” and parroting Trump’s refrain of “Russia, Russia, Russia”.

When Jon Karl of ABC News asked about it, she tried to turn the tables: “Does it trouble you that the FBI said, ‘We’ve gotta get Flynn to lie?’ Doesn’t that trouble you as a journalist and, not only that, as an American citizen?”

Karl replied dryly: “Well, it’s certainly something worth reporting. It’s not my job to say whether or not it’s troubling.”

McEnany arched her left eyebrow at that.

She also proved adept on the most important aspects of any press secretary’s job: the art of saying nothing. There were plenty of “I don’t want to get ahead of the president” deflections. As for policy depth, which is what the briefings are meant be about, that remains to be seen.

Kurt Bardella, a political commentator, tweeted: “Objectively @kayleighmcenany is doing the best job (so far) at the podium for @realDonaldTrump than anyone else who has served as @PressSec ... her experience on cable news makes her a far more seasoned spokesperson than her predecessors.”

From the Trump team’s point of view, Bardella added, “she is poised, capable, on-message, in-command, prepares and a very effective communicator”.

Mark Meadows, the new White House chief of staff who has shaken up the communications operation, will probably be pleased. But it was McEnany’s sign-off that was perhaps the most revealing insight into what she called her “mission to bring you the mindset of the president”.

She declared: “Of course, everyone should watch the Fox News town hall with the president from 7pm to 9pm [on Sunday]. It’ll be can’t-miss television – much like the highly rated President Trump coronavirus task force briefings have been.”

If Trump’s attention span stretched to the end of the half-hour briefing, he will have been happy with that.

Contributor

David Smith in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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