Aides to President Donald Trump questioned him during the 2016 campaign about the existence of an audio tape in which he purportedly said the N-word, a racial epithet, during production of his reality TV show "The Apprentice."
But officials' divergent accounts, shifting stories, and an overall dearth of credibility have combined to create little clarity on the circumstances surrounding those conversations.
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Corroboration of the campaign's concern over the tape -- whose existence has yet to be verified --brought the controversy surrounding former Trump aide Omarosa Manigault Newman's new book into another day, even as Trump and his aides sought to discredit and attack her character.
Lynne Patton, a Trump campaign aide and assistant to one of the President's sons, told fellow campaign officials on a call in October 2016 that she confronted Trump about the existence of the tape and that he denied it, according to a recording of the call publicly released Tuesday morning by Manigault Newman on CBS.
"I said, 'Well, sir, can you think of anytime this might have happened?' and he said no," Patton said on the call with Manigault Newman, Katrina Pierson, a Trump campaign spokeswoman, and Jason Miller, the campaign's communications director, according to the audio released Tuesday.
Besides Miller, all three aides are black.
During the same call, Pierson says she doesn't believe the President's denials, but began to consider how she could "spin it" should the alleged tape become public.
"He said it," Pierson says. "No, he said it. He's embarrassed."
Pierson and Patton did not deny the authenticity of the audio recording in a statement on Tuesday, a departure from their previous statements on the matter.
"During the 2016 campaign, we heard rumors about an alleged tape from 'The Apprentice.' It's clear now that those rumors were always being circulated by Omarosa and her alone," said Pierson, now an adviser to Trump's re-election campaign.
"In her secret tape recording of me, it was one of many times that I would placate Omarosa to move the discussion along because I was weary of her obsession over this alleged tape," Pierson wrote. "That discussion was nothing other than sifting through unconfirmed rumors regarding the Apprentice tape."
Pierson's explanation was one in a series of shifting accounts about the Trump campaign's worry over the purported "Apprentice" tape.
On Monday evening, before tape of the phone call was made public, Pierson denied such a call ever transpired.
"That did not happen. It sounds like she's writing a script for a movie," she insisted.
Despite her assertion on the recording that Trump did use the racial epithet, Pierson said on Tuesday she does not believe that Trump used the N-word.
"No. I do not," Pierson said via text message when asked.
Kellyanne Conway, a top aide to Trump and one of Trump's 2016 campaign managers, also signaled to reporters on Tuesday that she told Trump about rumors that an audio tape of him using the N-word existed.
"It was my job to tell the President every rumor, innuendo, fact, fiction," Conway said when asked whether she told him about the alleged tape.
The competing storylines came as Trump and his associates escalated their attacks on Manigault Newman, who was fired from the White House in December.
"When you give a crazed, crying lowlife a break, and give her a job at the White House, I guess it just didn't work out. Good work by General Kelly for quickly firing that dog!" the President tweeted early Tuesday.
The bitter language drew immediate recriminations from Trump's critics, including Sen. Jeff Flake, a retiring Republican from Arizona who has frequently spoken against the President.
"This kind of language is unbecoming of a President of the United States. There is no excuse for it, and Republicans should not be okay with it," Flake tweeted.
The use of "dog" to describe Manigault Newman, who was the highest ranking African-American in Trump's White House during her tenure, did little to dampen the renewed allegations of racism against the President.
Some of his top aides rushed to defend him, claiming they'd never witnessed him use racist language in their interactions.
"I've been around @realDonaldTrump publicly & privately for 25yrs. I've NEVER ONCE - EVER - have heard him say the disgusting & terrible word that the Opportunistic Wacky Omarosa claims," wrote Dan Scavino, Trump's longtime social media director.
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