During Tuesday’s White House press briefing, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders excoriated reporters inquiring about President Donald Trump’s controversial comments to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), saying their minds were “in the gutter.”
Sanders was responding to a question from April Ryan, Washington bureau chief and White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks, regarding a tweet Trump had sent earlier in the day, in which he claimed Gillibrand was “used,” that she “would do anything” for campaign donations, and had previously “begged” him for money. When pressed on whether Trump was planning to apologize to Gillibrand for what some perceived as sexually-coded language, Sanders pushed back.
“I think only if your mind was in the gutter would you have read it that way, so no, [he won’t apologize],” she said. “He’s obviously talking about the political partisan games that people often play and the broken system that he’s talked about repeatedly.”
Earlier in the briefing, Sanders had claimed that there was “no way” Trump’s tweet to the New York senator was sexist, because “he’s used similar terminology many times when talking about politicians of both parties, both men and women.”
“This president is someone that can’t be bought. It’s one of the reasons he’s president today,” she added. “He’s not alleging anything. He’s talking about the way our system functions functions as it is. That politicians repeatedly beg for money. That’s not something new.”
As plenty of sympathetic Twitter users pointed out earlier in the day, Trump has, indeed, used that phrasing to condemn other politicians in the past, some of whom were men. As Fortune reported in September 2016, on one occasion, Trump reportedly told the late real estate and lending figure Ned Eichler that he “could buy a United States senator for $200,000” and that former New York Gov. Hugh Carey “[would] do anything for a developer who gives him a campaign contribution.”
Trump employed that phrase again during a campaign rally in Portland, Maine in May 2016. Referencing former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who spoke highly of Trump after receiving Trump’s endorsement in February 2012, Trump bragged, “He was begging for my endorsement. I could’ve said, ‘Mitt, drop to your knees.’ He would’ve dropped to his knees. He was begging. He was begging me. It’s true.”
However, as Vox noted at the time, many interpreted those latter comments as sexual innuendo. Current New York Times correspondent Shane Goldmacher tweeted that Trump’s Romney comments were a fellatio reference; his colleague, Nick Confessore noted that the phrasing seemed to be a homophobic jab at Romney, who had recently condemned Trump over his vulgar language and inappropriate behavior during the campaign.
Trump’s comments on Tuesday also come in the wake of the larger “Me Too” movement, a wave of sexual misconduct allegations against men in power — both in politics and media — that has prompted many to resign or face punishment for their behavior. Gillibrand, who has been an outspoken advocate of sexual assault and harassment victims, recently called on Trump to step down over his own sexual misconduct allegations, all of which he has denied.
The context in which he tweeted at Gillibrand, then, was not lost on many of the reporters in the room during Tuesday’s press briefing — including White House correspondent John Roberts of Fox News, Trump’s news network of choice.
“Given the charged atmosphere here in Washington and everything that is swirling around… it would be easy to see how people could have read that tweet the way they did,” Roberts noted afterward.