WASHINGTON — The White House is facing fresh allegations of dishonesty after press secretary Stephanie Grisham claimed without evidence that aides to President Barack Obama left behind disparaging messages around the White House on the day President Donald Trump was inaugurated.
During a radio interview Tuesday, Grisham said that White House aides left “Obama books” throughout the White House and taped a big “You will fail” sign on the door of the press office before Trump aides moved in — claims that sparked a chorus of condemnation from former Obama administration officials.
Grisham then modified her assertions later in the day, changing key parts of her story and saying she viewed the alleged conduct as little more than a harmless prank.
“This is another bald faced lie,” Susan Rice, who was serving as Obama’s national security adviser through the end of his administration, wrote Tuesday on Twitter in response to Grisham’s initial remarks.
“This is absolutely not true,” wrote Chris Lu, who served as White House Cabinet secretary during the Obama administration. “Obama repeatedly and publicly praised Bush cooperation during 2009 transition, and pledged we would provide same cooperation to whoever followed us. And that’s what we did.”
Grisham did not provide evidence to back up her allegations. No other administration official has made any similar allegations publicly in the 34 months since Trump entered the White House.
Five former senior administration officials present on day one in 2017 said they do not remember witnessing or hearing of any notes like the ones that Grisham described.
“Not in my office,” said one of the former officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to contradict the press secretary.
Grisham made the initial allegation during an interview with the John Fredericks radio show after the host asked her why the Trump White House had failed to fully staff the administration with loyalists from its earliest days.
Grisham responded by alleging that the administration faced an uphill battle from the very beginning, include open disdain from Obama aides who left behind hostile messages as they departed their offices.
“When we came into the White House, I’ll tell you something, every office was filled with Obama books, and we had notes left behind that said ‘You will fail,’ ‘You aren’t going to make it,’ ” she said. “In the press office, there was a big note taped to a door that said that ‘You will fail.’ “
Brandi Hoffine, who served as a press aide during the Obama administration, said on Twitter that when she left the lower press office on Jan. 19, 2017, “the only notes left in that room when we turned out the lights were words of encouragement.”
A Washington Post reporter who walked through the White House press office on the evening before Trump’s inauguration found a positive note on the desk of former press secretary Josh Earnest, addressed to his successor, Sean Spicer.
In response to Obama aides pushing back on her allegations, Grisham issued a statement softening her initial claims and calling the controversy “silly.”
“I’m not sure where their offices were, and certainly wasn’t implying every office had that issue,” Grisham said. “I was talking specifically (and honestly) about our experience in the lower press office — nowhere else. I don’t know why everyone is so sensitive!”
“Stephanie is correct that there were nasty grams left in the press office,” tweeted Michael Short, a former White House spokesman who worked in the “lower press” part of the White House. He did not say what the notes said.
A second former White House staffer said officials found a Russian vodka bottle in lower press and that Grisham found an anti-Trump note. The notes were “taped up in the cupboards,” this aide said.
Grisham’s follow-up statement differed significantly from her allegations that “every office was filled with Obama books” and that “there was a big note taped to a door that said ‘You will fail.’ “
“The books were inside the cabinets of lower press, as was one of the notes, which was taped inside,” she wrote, referring to a single office within the White House complex. “I believe others have come out saying this was true. Either way — this shouldn’t be a big deal.”
Several Trump administration officials who have gone on to write tell-all books, including some who worked in the White House press office, have never publicly mentioned seeing such letters or notes posted on doors or inside cabinets. While smartphones are ubiquitous among White House officials, no photos or copies of any alleged notes have surfaced since Trump was sworn in.
“We would have taken pictures of it and posted it everywhere,” said one former official who disputed Grisham’s account.
In her statement responding to the backlash Tuesday, Grisham said that she viewed the negative notes and Obama books “as kind of a prank, and something that always happened.” She also highlighted the fact that she personally received “a lovely note” from an Obama White House aide when she arrived.
But in the radio interview, she cast the alleged conduct in far more negative terms and used it to make the broader point that Obama aides — and career officials who continued to serve under Trump — had been vindictive and had worked to undermine the new president.
“It was sad, it was pathetic,” she said. “When we leave in six years, I fully intend to leave a note in my [successor’s] drawer, saying ‘Good luck to you.’ I don’t care if it’s a Dem or a Republican — you’re serving your country. It’s the highest honor in the world. So if these people couldn’t recognize and stay above that — that was on them.”
Several former Obama administration officials said they left behind only positive messages for the incoming Trump administration officials. Joanna Rosholm, press secretary for former first lady Michelle Obama, posted on Twitter a copy of a letter she left in the White House on Twitter.
“Welcome to the small family of White House Staffers, past and present,” she wrote. “The bond we all share transcends politics. I want you to know that I am always available if you have questions, just as Mrs. Bush’s staff was for us. No question is too big or too small.”
The two previous White House press secretaries under Trump have also faced allegations that they lacked candor or misled the public.
Spicer admitted that he made a mistake when he falsely claimed during his first press briefing that the crowd at Trump’s inauguration was the largest in history. It was not.
Former press secretary Sarah Sanders told federal investigators that she had not been accurate when she said during a 2017 press briefing that she had heard from “countless” FBI agents who supported Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey. That claim was not based on anything, Sanders told investigators from then-special-counsel Robert Mueller’s office.
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The Washington Post’s David Nakamura contributed to this report.