Editor’s Note: Joe Lockhart is a CNN political analyst. He was the White House press secretary from 1998-2000 in President Bill Clinton’s administration. He co-hosts the podcast “Words Matter.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
Every single White House press secretary faces his or her own moment of truth on the job. Jerald terHorst, for example, resigned after just one month because he could not live with President Gerald Ford’s decision to pardon his predecessor, President Richard Nixon.
Choosing when to take a stand, and what to reveal to the public are not always straightforward decisions. There are, for example, times when releasing the operational details of the military puts lives at risk. It begs the question: What’s more important, telling the truth or protecting lives? Jody Powell faced that decision under Jimmy Carter and decided saving lives trumped telling the press the truth during the Iranian hostage crisis.
I faced my own test early in my tenure as press secretary. As the House opened impeachment hearings on then-President Bill Clinton based on the Starr report, I was faced with the daily decision of how to answer questions about the President’s behavior.
Not knowing the full extent of what had happened, I chose not to contest the details in the report from the podium even though for many that seemed to be a confirmation of the allegations.
Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany faced her moment of reckoning in the briefing room on Wednesday, when reporters confronted her about the recordings, released by veteran journalist Bob Woodward, in which President Trump acknowledged in early February that the coronavirus was airborne and deadlier than the flu, even as he publicly dismissed concerns about the virus and called it the Democrats’ “new hoax.” In March, Trump told Woodward that he intentionally downplayed the dangers of the virus, saying, “I always wanted to play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
McEnany failed on an epic scale in her response. She did not provide context for Trump’s statements. Instead, she perpetuated the lies even the President himself admitted to Woodward on tape.
She also tried to pass off Trump’s comments as a sign of good leadership, saying, “So this President does what leaders do … stay calm and resolute at a time when you face an unsurmountable challenge.” But real leadership is telling the truth and taking responsibility for it. Only then can the American public trust that the President is looking out for their interests, not just his own.
When asked directly if the President had lied to the American public, McEnany had the gall to say, “The President has never lied to the American public on Covid.”
That is patently false. The President has repeatedly lied to the American people about the coronavirus and the government’s handling of the pandemic. He is now lying about lying. By claiming otherwise, McEnany reneged on the promise she made to reporters on her first day as press secretary when she said she would never lie to them.
In doing so, McEnany has destroyed her own personal credibility and fatally injured her ability to speak for the President, and more importantly, for the United States of America. Given her track record, foreign allies can’t rely on what she says at the White House podium. This poses a national security risk to the United States.
To be fair, McEnany was caught between a rock and a hard place. But the press secretary works for both the President and the American people, providing a vital link between the two. The only appropriate response in this case, was to say, “The President’s word speaks for itself. I am not going to parse them or interpret them for you.” That’s one way to maintain credibility while sending a clear signal the President is not telling the truth.
McEnany, however, has shown she is more interested in defending the President than informing the public, and her only recourse now is to resign.
The public has a right to question whether the President is trustworthy and honest. And while the press secretary is not an elected official, whoever inhabits the role should be careful to protect his or her own credibility. Without it, the press secretary becomes nothing more than a propagandist instead of a public servant.
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By saying the President has never lied to the American public, her tenure as Press Secretary has effectively come to an end – and her role as a state propagandist has been confirmed.