NEW YORK — Faced with a firm denial from the Boy Scouts, the White House on Wednesday corrected President Donald Trump’s claim in an interview that the head of the youth group called him to heap praise on a politically aggressive speech Trump delivered at the Scouts’ national jamboree.
After the Boy Scouts issued a statement saying no such call happened, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed their take but said “multiple members of the Boy Scout leadership” approached Trump in person after the speech and “offered quite powerful compliments.”
Sanders said compliments that Trump described receiving from the Boy Scouts and the Mexican president happened — just not on the phone, as Trump claimed.
“I wouldn’t say it was a lie. That’s a pretty bold accusation,” Sanders told reporters. “The conversations took place, they just simply didn’t take place over a phone call … he had them in person.”
Trump told The Wall Street Journal in an interview published Wednesday, “I got a call from the head of the Boy Scouts saying it was the greatest speech that was ever made to them.”
“We are unaware of any such call,” the Boy Scouts responded in a statement. It specified that neither Boy Scout President Randall Stephenson nor Chief Scout Executive Mike Surbaugh placed such a call.
There was no immediate word from the Boy Scouts as to whether Surbaugh was among those congratulating Trump in person. Stephenson did not attend the speech.
The White House also had to back off another Trump claim made Monday about an alleged phone call from Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, who Trump claimed called him to praise his immigration policies.
Sanders was responding to questions about a statement from the Mexican government denying what Trump described as a recent phone call with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. Trump said earlier this week that Pena Nieto called him to praise his immigration policies.
“As you know, the border was a tremendous problem and they’re close to 80 percent stoppage. Even the president of Mexico called me: They said their southern border, very few people are coming because they know they’re not going to get through our border, which is the ultimate compliment,” Trump said Monday.
Sanders said Trump had been “referencing a conversation that they had had at the G-20 summit where they specifically talked about the issues that he referenced.”
Email exchanges with the Boy Scouts of America head office made clear that fallout from the speech, and the president’s latest claim, placed the BSA in an awkward position — seeking to show its longstanding respect for the office of the presidency and avoid a confrontation with Trump while making clear that its top leaders had not called him to praise the speech.
Other U.S. presidents have delivered nonpolitical speeches at past jamborees. To the dismay of many parents and former scouts, Trump promoted his political agenda and derided his rivals, inducing some of the scouts in attendance to boo at the mention of former President Barack Obama.
The Scouts noted that Surbaugh had apologized last week to members of the scouting community who were offended by the political rhetoric in Trump’s July 24 speech in West Virginia.
“I want to extend my sincere apologies to those in our Scouting family who were offended by the political rhetoric that was inserted into the jamboree,” Surbaugh said. “That was never our intent.”
Surbaugh noted that every sitting president since 1937 has been invited to visit the jamboree.
Stephenson told The Associated Press two days after the speech that Boy Scout leaders anticipated Trump would spark controversy with politically tinged remarks, yet felt obliged to invite him out of respect for his office.
Hoping to minimize friction, the Boy Scouts issued guidelines to adult staff members for how the audience should react to the speech. Any type of political chanting was specifically discouraged.
Stephenson, who didn’t attend Trump’s speech, said the guidance wasn’t followed impeccably.
Associated Press writers Darlene Superville and Jill Colvin contributed to this report.