On Wednesday afternoon, while paddling through a week that began with press secretary Sean Spicer’s resignation and was pockmarked by Donald Trump dogging his attorney general, the White House launched a hopeful tradition: letters from children to the president, read aloud in the daily press briefing.
Four hours later, the term #PickleTruther was teeming on Twitter, and things had gotten really weird.
“My name is Dylan but every body calls me Pickle,” Wednesday’s letter began, read by new press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders from her podium. “I’m 9 years old and you are my favorit president. I like you so much I had a birthday about you. My cake was the shap of your hat.”
Pickle had a few questions for the president, which Huckabee Sanders answered: The White House has 132 rooms. The president would be happy to be Pickle’s friend. Huckabee Sanders wasn’t sure exactly how much money the president had, she told Pickle, “but I know it’s a lot.”
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Reporters asked Huckabee Sanders to provide them with a copy of the letter, and she said she would, once she’d blacked out Pickle’s last name. A few hours later she tweeted out a photograph of a single sheet of notebook paper; it was retweeted 900 times by Trump fans and detractors.
At first the detractors centered on Pickle’s request to know “how much monny do you have.” Was this not, folks pointed out, exactly the kind of question that the “release your taxes” movement had been asking for months?
But then the comments became more investigative. Was it odd that the notebook paper, which theoretically arrived in the mail, didn’t seem to have the crease marks one would see on a letter folded into an envelope? Was it unusual that a young child would have spelled “people” and “friend” correctly, but then mixed up “how”? What kind of 9-year-old would request a birthday party themed around a 71-year-old man?
Pickle came to represent everything the nation feared and hoped for: Was the administration a “friend” to the American people? Was the administration trying to pull one over on us?
“The ‘kid’ who wrote the Pickle letter,” someone posted, as if they had uncovered a second set of Pentagon papers, “has the same name as the (Vice President Pence’s) cat.”
During the 1980s and 1990s, reporters who were writing about Donald Trump would occasionally have their calls returned to them by a rotation of Trump Organization spokesmen: John Miller. John Baron, sometimes spelled with two r’s. The goal of each was the same – to paint their boss as suave, cool, fantastic, wonderful, the best ladies man. “Actresses, people that you write about, just call to see if they can go out with him and things,” Miller told a People magazine reporter in 1991.
Miller was, of course, Donald Trump. So were Baron and Barron – alter-egos used by the mogul to tootle his own horn in the third person. Some reporters never found out, quoting Miller in multiple news articles. Reporters who knew the ruse thought it was anywhere from playful to creepy.
As Wednesday’s investigation into the veracity of Pickle barged on ahead, weary Trump supporters noted the lunacy – the desperation – of people who would dedicate so much energy to tearing apart a sweet letter from a child.
It was lunacy. Craven lunacy. But it was not lunacy that came out of nowhere. It was lunacy born of the times, incubated in a world of secret Russian meetings, fudged inauguration sizes, and grandiose statements from a commander in chief whose greatest pastime and hobby was self-mythologizing.
Armchair detectives returned with more information:
Donald Trump Jr. had once told the New York Post that he’d kept a doll from childhood named Captain Pickle.
There was a Portland baseball team whose mascot was Dillon the Pickle.
“In all of this Pickle letter stuff,” asked a Canadian sportswriter on Twitter, “has anyone pointed out that Dylan Pickles is literally the name of a fictional child from Rugrats?”
Another would-be sleuth went down a database rabbithole: Though Huckabee Sanders had blacked out Pickle’s last name in the Tweeted version of the letter, she’d read it out loud from the podium, and it sounded like “Harbin.”
“There is no record in the index of US newspaper birth announcements for a Dylan Harbin between 2007 and 2009,” wrote Mike Smith, a reporter for the United Kingdom’s Mirror.
Handwriting and children’s cognitive experts were called and asked whether the letter appeared to be written by a child. We called one ourself. Two, actually.
Deborah McCutchen is a professor at the University of Wisconsin who studies cognitive processes in reading and writing ability. She looked at the letter. She noted that the handful of small spelling errors followed the phonetic sounds of words – “pitcher” instead of “picture” – which would be common in the writing of a young child. Then again, the letter also included a hyphen, which seemed sophisticated for a 9-year-old.
Sheila Lowe, president of the American Handwriting Analysis Foundation, said she didn’t see anything that would be inconsistent with a 9-year-old’s writing, but she also clarified that she did not specialize in analyzing the writing of children. She noted that the margins on the right side of the paper were very wide, which can indicate a feeling of concern about the future.
Pickle was us. Pickle was all of us. We had to find him.
SueAnn Harbin’s younger son had come home from school during the presidential race last year and announced that he liked Trump. His third-grade class in Stockton, was holding a mock election, so they were learning about the candidates. He liked that Trump had the same name as his friend Donald. He liked the candidate’s suits. He Googled “Donald Trump” and learned about all the hotels he owned around the world, and that seemed exciting to him.
His name was Dylan. When he was a baby, his older brother started calling him Dyl-Pickle, and eventually the Dyl dropped away.
So, we found Pickle. He is real, definitely real. He likes watching baseball and playing on his scooter and Donald Trump.
It took us a little while. Mostly we typed in endless searches on Facebook – but then what have we spent the past decade doing besides learning how to track down people on Facebook? There he was in a picture, a cute blond with a buzz cut, posing with his brother and a dog.
His mother responded to a Facebook message and then called Thursday night on the phone when she got back from the grocery store. It had been a busy couple of days. She’d gotten a call on her cellphone the day before, while the family was driving home from a Giants game. It was from the White House, telling SueAnn that a letter her son had written was going to be read aloud during a news briefing in about 20 minutes. SueAnn called her cousin and asked her to record it.
SueAnn does not consider herself to be very political. She was a little taken aback by her son’s sudden love for Trump. (“I know you love him,” she whispered to the interrupting Pickle.)
But she is always behind her children “one-hundred percent,” so when Pickle asked for “a Donald Trump suit” for his birthday, she bought him one, and when he asked for “a Donald Trump cake,” she made him one herself, because she couldn’t find a bakery willing and able to do it.
“Do you think Donald Trump will live to be 100?” he asked her one day. She told him she didn’t know, and asked why he was asking. “Because then he can watch me be president,” Pickle told her. He’d been talking about writing the letter for at least a month before he got up the nerve to compose and send it.
Pickle had watched the White House recording at least five or six times since it first aired yesterday. He would tell SueAnn he wanted to Google it, and she would insist on Googling it for him herself, because in addition to watching the video, she had also watched the aftermath – the crazy-seeming insistence that her son did not exist, including people who seemed to be mocking the letter. “Honestly, I thought, how can adults be so mean about a 9-year-old boy?” she says.
Watching the press secretary say that Trump wanted to be his friend makes Pickle laugh every time, and cry a little the first time, because it was so emotional.
“Yes. He’s alive,” SueAnn says. “He’s real. He’s not fake.”