The Republican Party, in service to Donald Trump, has made a joke of everything it claims to believe. It defends secret meetings to get campaign dirt from Russia. It attributes new jobs to the magic of the federal government. It excuses liaisons with a porn star while the cheater’s third wife is nursing a newborn.
Now the GOP has found a new way to debase itself. It’s recapitulating one of the most comically embarrassing episodes in presidential history: the “meaning of is.”
In January 1998, President Bill Clinton testified in a sexual harassment case filed against him by Paula Jones, a former Arkansas state employee. Jones’ lawyers tried to bring up Monica Lewinsky, a former White House aide, whom they suspected of having an affair with Clinton. Clinton’s lawyer, Bob Bennett, objected. “Counsel is fully aware,” said Bennett, “that Ms. Lewinsky has filed, has an affidavit, which they are in possession of, saying that there is absolutely no sex of any kind in any manner, shape or form, with President Clinton.”
Clinton sat mutely as Bennett made this misleading statement. Seven months later, under interrogation by the office of the independent counsel, the president defended his silence:
Q: The statement that there was “no sex of any kind in any manner, shape or form, with President Clinton” was an utterly false statement. Is that correct?
Clinton: It depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is. If the—if he—if “is” means is and never has been that is not—that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement. … At the time of the deposition, it had been—that was well beyond any point of improper contact between me and Ms. Lewinsky.*
Clinton offered other excuses, too. He said he hadn’t been paying attention and wasn’t responsible for what Bennett said. He said Bennett hadn’t been under oath. He referred questions to Bennett. “You’d have to talk to him,” Clinton told the prosecutors.
Since then, “the meaning of is” has become shorthand for creative dishonesty. In 2014, while hosting a Fox News show, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee played video of Clinton’s testimony to mock him. In 2015, Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway accused Hillary Clinton of using the same trickery. “Depends what the meaning of is is,” Conway joked. At the 2016 GOP convention, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani ridiculed the former president’s lies. “There was nothing to be misunderstood about what Bill Clinton did,” said Giuliani, to laughter from convention delegates.
History had a cruel punchline in store for these Republicans. “The meaning of is” would return, this time with Trump as the lecher. And to defend Trump’s lies, his apologists—Giuliani, Conway, and Huckabee’s daughter, Sarah Huckabee Sanders—are now tying themselves in Clinton-esque knots.
On March 5, at a White House briefing, a reporter asked Sanders about a $130,000 hush payment made just before 2016 election. The money had gone from Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, to Stephanie Clifford, better known in the adult film industry as Stormy Daniels. The reporter asked: “Did the president and Michael Cohen talk about this payment at any time during the campaign or thereafter?” Sanders replied: “Not that I’m aware of.” Two days later, she told the press corps that she had discussed the matter with Trump. “I’ve had conversations with the president about this,” she said. “There was no knowledge of any payments from the president.”
On April 5, reporters followed up with Trump:
Q: Did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?
Trump: No. No. What else?
Q: Then why did Michael—why did Michael Cohen make this, if there was no truth to her allegations?
Trump: Well, you have to ask Michael Cohen. …
Q: And do you know where he got the money to make that payment?
Trump: No, I don’t know.
Four days later, the FBI raided Cohen’s office and seized his records. Cohen’s lawyers talked to Trump’s, and Trump’s story changed. On May 2, Giuliani, now serving as Trump’s attorney, disclosed that Trump had been reimbursing Cohen for the Daniels payment and other expenses since early 2017.
This created two problems. First, Sanders had apparently spoken falsely on March 7 when she said, “There was no knowledge of any payments from the president.” Second, Trump had apparently lied on April 5 when he denied knowing about the payment.
To square these statements with Giuliani’s disclosure, Trump and his surrogates have adopted Clinton’s gambit. They’re disputing the meaning of did. On May 6, Conway went on two Sunday shows to announce that she had breaking news. She said that in a conversation with her on May 5, Trump had explained that when he said, “No” during the April 5 exchange, he meant, “I didn’t know about it when the payment occurred.” So technically, although Trump had known about the payment for some time, when he answered the “did you know?” question in the negative on April 5, he wasn’t lying.
Trump’s spin on did, like Clinton’s spin on is, was a ruse. In the April 5 exchange, Trump had lied in response to a present-tense question: “Do you know where [Cohen] got the money to make that payment?” The president replied: “No, I don’t know. No.” Furthermore, the question initially posed to Sanders on March 5 was whether Trump and Cohen had discussed the payment “at any time during the campaign or thereafter.” That’s the question that Sanders, on March 7, said she had discussed with Trump. Her response—“There was no knowledge of any payments from the president”—echoes almost perfectly what Clinton’s lawyer said at the 1998 deposition: “There is absolutely no sex of any kind in any manner, shape or form, with President Clinton.” Could Sanders’ statement be true? It depends on what the meaning of the word was was.
In every way, Trump has emulated Clinton’s slimiest behavior. He has a pattern of alleged sexual aggressions. He has a gang of henchmen who go around dismissing his accusers. In 2016, Giuliani called Clinton’s gang the “bimbo squad.” Now Giuliani leads Trump’s bimbo squad. Clinton’s fixers used affidavits to extract and exploit bogus denials from women. Trump’s fixers accomplish the same thing through nondisclosure contracts. A week ago, Giuliani had this egregiously Clintonian exchange with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos:
Q: The president does acknowledge meeting Stormy Daniels, correct? …
Giuliani: I don’t know. I mean, he denies that it happened. She has written a letter denying it.
Q: Well, we do have a picture of them together, so the—the president—
Giuliani: Well, it depends on kind of what you mean by “met her.” Right?
Giuliani wouldn’t clarify, even in the broadest terms, when Trump had learned about the payment to Daniels. “It could have been recently, it could have been a while back,” he told Stephanopoulos. Nor did Giuliani care what Trump had said on April 5. “He never said it under oath,” Giuliani told the Washington Post.
It’s entertaining, in retrospect, to read pious comments from Republicans during the Lewinsky affair. “If the president chooses to give a different version of the truth, we should all remind ourselves of one thing: There may be many different political strategies, but there’s only one version of the truth.” That was Kellyanne Conway—at the time, Kellyanne Fitzpatrick—on Good Morning America in 1998. “It’s just much simpler to recognize what the truth is,” said Conway, “and share it with the rest of us.”
Now that Conway and Giuliani are shilling for the president, things are much more complicated. There are lying bimbos and “alternative facts.” There are new definitions of did and was. Truth still matters, of course. But it depends what you mean by truth.
Update, May 16, 2018: This quote has been updated to include an additional sentence that Clinton said.
If you think Slate’s election coverage matters…
Support our work: become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.Join Slate Plus