Ralph Northam, the governor of Virginia, swears he’s telling the truth. On Friday, Northam confessed to appearing in a racist photo in a 1984 yearbook. On Saturday, after Democrats called on him to resign, he reversed himself and said it was a case of mistaken identity. “I will stand and live by my word,” Northam told reporters at an afternoon press conference. He quoted the honor code of his alma mater, the Virginia Military Institute: “A cadet shall not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.”
I don’t know whether Northam is one of the people in the photo. But I do know he’s been lying in his responses to this story. The evidence is in his own words. Let’s take his denials, one by one.
1. He believed right away that he wasn’t in the picture. The photo appears in the yearbook of Eastern Virginia Medical School, where Northam was a student. It seems to have been taken at a party, and it appears on a page that bears Northam’s name, alongside what are clearly pictures of him. It shows one person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robes. The two people are hard to identify. In a written statement that Northam read aloud at his press conference, he asserted that when he was first shown the photo, “I believed then and now that I am not either of the people in that photo.”
That denial contradicts Northam’s previous statements. The photo was initially posted on a conservative website, Big League Politics, on Friday afternoon. Reporters confirmed that it was in the yearbook. Around 6 p.m., Northam issued a statement acknowledging that it was “a photograph of me.” He apologized for “the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo.” Two hours later, he released a video statement in which he apologized for “my past actions,” “the decisions I made,” and “the harm my behavior caused.” Northam’s Friday statements, like his Saturday statement, were scripted, so he couldn’t have misspoken. Either he believed on Friday that he wasn’t in the photo—in which case his Friday statements were false—or he didn’t, in which case his Saturday statement was false.
Northam also told the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus that he was in the picture. According to three lawmakers, the governor confirmed in a Friday night meeting with the caucus that he was in the photo. “Last night, from his mouth to my ear, he apologized to me for the mistake that he made,” state Sen. Louise Lucas, a member of the caucus, reported on Saturday. Did Northam mislead the caucus? Or is he misleading everyone else now?
2. He knew he couldn’t have done it. This is a stronger denial based on Northam’s moral certainty that he isn’t the sort of person who could have worn such costumes. At the press conference, he claimed that when he first saw the photo, “My first impression, actually, [was] that this couldn’t be me.” In fact, it was more than impression. “There is no way that I have ever been in a KKK uniform,” he declared. “I am not the person in that uniform. And I am not the person [in blackface] to the right.”
But if Northam was that certain of his innocence, why didn’t he say so on Friday? When he was asked at the press conference, he pleaded, “I didn’t know at the time.” He claimed to have confessed initially because “based on the evidence presented to me at the time, the most likely explanation [was] that it was indeed me in the photo.” He added, “It has taken time for me to make sure that it’s not me.”
Again, Northam’s story doesn’t add up. If he originally thought he was one of the people in the photo, or if he was uncertain about it, then it can’t be true that he was morally certain he’d never do such a thing. Nor does his denial square with what he told the black caucus on Friday night. Two members of the caucus, Del. Lamont Bagby and state Sen. Lionell Spruill, say that when the group asked Northam which character he had played in the picture, he said he didn’t know. No one who confessed that degree of doubt on Friday night could stand before cameras on Saturday afternoon and honestly say there’s “no way” either of the characters could be him.
3. He could tell just by looking at the photo. “It is definitely not me. I can tell by looking at it,” Northam told reporters on Saturday. Later, he repeated, “If one looks at the picture, it’s not my picture.” That’s not consistent with the governor’s confessions of guilt or his confessions of uncertainty. The picture was the first piece of information he had. If it was sufficient to exonerate him, why didn’t he say so? When a reporter posed that question at the press conference, all Northam could say was, “I didn’t study it as well as I should.”
That’s just not credible. What changed between Friday night and Saturday morning wasn’t Northam sitting up late with a magnifying glass. It was two other things. First, based on the governor’s initial confessions, a wave of Democrats, including the Virginia Democratic Party and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, announced that he should resign. Second, Northam contacted his former medical school classmates. At the press conference, he said they told him they had “never seen me in any outfit like that.” He also said he had asked a former classmate, “Is there a possibility, you think, that someone could have put a photo on the wrong page?” Northam said that this classmate told him photos had been misplaced “on numerous pages in this very yearbook. … Photos laid out on a table. One could mistakenly get put on the wrong page. This happened numerous times in this yearbook. And I suspect that’s what happened in this case.”
Northam presented these conversations with his classmates as evidence of his innocence.
And maybe that’s what they’ll turn out to be. But for now, they’re just evidence that he checked to see whether anyone in his class might have information that could support the case against him. Nobody remembers him wearing anything like the costumes in that picture. He has also found a witness who could testify that pictures were sometimes misplaced. So what Northam knows now—but didn’t know on Friday night—was that if he denies he’s in that photo, he might be able to get away with it.
I hope Northam isn’t in that picture. But one way or the other, he’s been lying.