Deny, divert, discredit: Trump turns to his scandal playbook once again

Image: President Trump Delivers State Of The Union Address To Joint Session
President Donald Trump walks through the doors to the House Chamber to deliver the State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives on Feb. 5, 2019. Copyright Doug Mills Pool via Getty Images file
Copyright Doug Mills Pool via Getty Images file
By Shannon Pettypiece with NBC News Politics
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Analysis: The president has a canned approach for trying to fend off bad news. This time it's a whistleblower report.


President Donald Trump is turning to what's become a tried-and-true pattern of defending himself against scandal in the latest controversy over a whistleblower's accusation that he made a disturbing promise to a foreign leader.

It goes like this:

Step one: Deny the reports while arguing that even if true, there is nothing wrong with what was done.

Step two: Divert attention to a subplot that implicates political rivals.

Step three: Discredit investigators by accusing those involved of a deep state or partisan witch hunt.

The playbook has been used by Trump and his surrogates repeatedly against various accusations, including whether his campaign held an improper meeting with Russians promising dirt on Hillary Clinton, that he paid hush money to an adult film actress, and that he is profiting off the presidency through his private businesses.

The strategy played out in the Oval Office on Friday when Trump was pressed about a whistleblower report by an intelligence officer who raised concerns after learning of an alleged promise Trump made during a phone call to a foreign leader. Ukraine is at the center of the complaint, The Washington Post reported on Thursday evening.

Trump denied knowing who the whistleblower is or the date of the conversation in question — but said he never did anything wrong anyway. "It was a totally appropriate conversation, it was actually a beautiful conversation," Trump told reporters.

When Trump was asked about speculation he asked the Ukrainian president to investigate Joe Biden, the president deflected. He tried to shift to his own accusation that Biden had been involved in a quid pro quo with Ukraine connected to the former vice president son's involvement in a Ukrainian gas company.

It was the same pattern of defense Trump used when media reports came out about a meeting arranged between his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., and a Russian lawyer, whom he believed had "dirt" on Hillary Clinton.

Trump initially denied knowing about the meeting and his lawyer denied he knew anything about his son's response to the media reports. When it was later reported, and eventually confirmed by Trump's lawyers, that Trump helped his son write a misleading statement about the purpose of the meeting, the president and his lawyers shifted their defense to saying that there was nothing wrong with having such a meeting.

Throughout the Russia investigation, Trump and his allies sought to discredit any findings saying they were a politically motivated "witch hunt," accusing Robert Mueller's investigators of being "angry Democrats." White House lawyers have since stonewalled subpoenas by House Democrats into the Trump campaign's connections with Russia.

And now Trump's used a similar tactic to attempt to discredit the intelligence community whistleblower. "It's ridiculous, it's a partisan whistleblower," he said.

Like with the Russia investigation, where Trump tried to push a counter-narrative about Obama administration spying and rogue Justice Department officials, he is using the controversy to try to further his accusations that Biden was involved in nefarious deals in Ukraine.

It was a pattern he also followed when reports came out that Trump paid hush money to adult film actress Stormy Daniels to keep quiet about an affair days before the election.

In that case, Trump denied knowing about the payments, but as more reporting came out suggesting he likely was aware of them, the president told Fox News that there was nothing illegal because no campaign funds were used. A few weeks later, Trump lawyer Rudy Giulianitold Fox News that Trump had indeed reimbursed Cohen for the payments, which were "perfectly legal." Trump then shifted the blame to Cohen, saying as his lawyer he should have known better.

Giuliani on Thursday night dusted off the playbook he used for months defending Trump against accusations his campaign coordinated with Russian election interference efforts and that the president obstructed justice.

Giuliani appeared to both admit and deny asking the Ukraine officials to launch an investigation into Biden. And he tried to change the subject by alleging without evidence that there was wrongdoing by the former vice president and 2020 presidential candidate.

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