AP FACT CHECK: Trump’s torrent of twisted claims on Russia
WASHINGTON — Russia keeps reverberating even with special counsel Robert Mueller’s report now part of history.
As much as President Donald Trump says he wants the United States to move on, he’s found it hard to turn away himself, as seen in a torrent of tweets and remarks railing against Democrats, trashing Mueller and painting his own actions in a saintly light.
There is little truth to be found in these statements.
A review of a week of Russia-heavy rhetoric from Trump and his team, also touching on the census and the economy:
TRUMP: “No Collusion, No Obstruction – there has NEVER been a President who has been more transparent. Millions of pages of documents were given to the Mueller Angry Dems, plus I allowed everyone to testify, including W.H. counsel.” — tweet Wednesday.
ATTORNEY GENERAL WILLIAM BARR: “The White House fully cooperated with the special counsel’s investigation, providing unfettered access to campaign and White House documents, directing senior aides to testify freely, and asserting no privilege claims.” — remarks at the Justice Department on April 18.
THE FACTS: It’s a huge stretch for them to cast the White House as being “fully” cooperative and open in the investigation into Moscow’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election and the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russian figures.
Trump declined to sit for an interview with Mueller’s team, gave written answers that investigators described as “inadequate” and “incomplete,” said more than 30 times that he could not remember something he was asked about in writing, and — according to the report — tried to get aides to fire Mueller or otherwise shut or limit the inquiry.
In the end, the Mueller report found no criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia but left open the question of whether Trump obstructed justice.
Also on the matter of transparency, Trump is an outlier among presidents in refusing to release his tax returns . Providing tax information as a candidate in 2016 and as president is something party nominees have traditionally done for half a century.
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TRUMP: “In the ’old days’ if you were President and you had a good economy, you were basically immune from criticism. Remember, ’It’s the economy stupid.’ Today I have, as President, perhaps the greatest economy in history.” — tweet Tuesday.
THE FACTS: You can assume many previous presidents would beg to disagree that a good economy shielded them from criticism.
Under President Bill Clinton, whose top campaign staffer James Carville coined the phrase “the economy, stupid” to underscore what the campaign should be about, the unemployment rate fell to 3.8% and the nation’s economy grew 4% or more for four straight years.
Yet Clinton was under independent counsel investigation for all but one year of his presidency, 1993. The House impeached him in December 1998, at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, though the Senate acquitted him in February 1999. In January 1998, Hillary Clinton alleged a “vast right-wing conspiracy” to take down her husband, a widely mocked complaint about the relentless criticism the Clintons faced from the right (which extended to ridicule over the title of Hillary Clinton’s 1996 book, “It Takes a Village.”)
Under President Ronald Reagan, the economy expanded 3.5% or more for six years in a row, with growth rocketing to 7.2% in 1984. Yet Reagan was dogged in his second term by the Iran-Contra investigation, which focused on covert arm sales to Iran that financed aid to Nicaraguan rebels.
Both presidents saw much faster growth than Trump has presided over, despite Trump’s faulty claim to have “perhaps the greatest economy in history.” Growth reached 2.9% last year, the best in four years, but far below the levels achieved under Clinton or Reagan. The unemployment rate touched 3.7% last September and November, the lowest in five decades, but just one-tenth of a percentage point below the 3.8% in April 2000 under Clinton.
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TRUMP: “Mueller was NOT fired and was respectfully allowed to finish his work on what I, and many others, say was an illegal investigation (there was no crime), headed by a Trump hater who was highly conflicted.” — tweet Thursday.
THE FACTS: Trump is wrong to suggest that the FBI acted illegally by investigating him. The FBI does not need to know if or have evidence that a crime occurred before it begins an investigation.
Many investigations that are properly conducted ultimately don’t find evidence of any crime. The FBI is empowered to open an investigation if there’s information it has received or uncovered that leads the bureau to think it might encounter a crime. Apart from that, the investigation into the Trump campaign was initially a counterintelligence investigation rather than a strictly criminal one, as agents sought to understand whether and why Russia was meddling in the 2016 election.
Trump also makes a baseless charge that Mueller was “highly conflicted.” Mueller, a longtime Republican, was cleared by the Justice Department’s ethics experts to lead the Russia investigation. Nothing in the public record makes him a “Trump hater.”
According to the special counsel’s report, when Trump previously complained privately to aides that Mueller would not be objective, the advisers, including then-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, then-White House counsel Don McGahn and Reince Priebus, chief of staff at the time, rejected those complaints as not representing “true conflicts.” Bannon also called the claims “ridiculous.”
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TRUMP: “I DID NOTHING WRONG. If the partisan Dems ever tried to Impeach, I would first head to the U.S. Supreme Court.” — tweet Wednesday.
THE FACTS: He’d have a tough hearing at the Supreme Court. Justices ruled 9-0 in 1993 that the Constitution grants sole power of impeachment to the House and Senate, not the judiciary.
Under the principle of separation of powers, Congress is a co-equal branch of government to the executive branch and judiciary. The House is afforded power to impeach a president by bringing formal charges and the Senate convenes the trial, with two-thirds of senators needed to convict and remove a president from office. The Constitution does not provide a role for the judiciary in the impeachment process, other than the chief justice of the United States presiding over the Senate trial.
In its 1993 ruling, the Supreme Court said framers of the Constitution didn’t intend for the court to have the power to review impeachment proceedings because they involve political questions that shouldn’t be resolved in the courts.
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KELLYANNE CONWAY, White House counselor, saying there’s no need for Congress to continue investigating with the Mueller probe concluded: “We all know if Director Mueller and his investigators wanted to or felt that it was right to indict they would have done that. He had every opportunity to indict and declined to indict. Investigators investigate and they decide to indict, they refer indictment or they decline indictment. That’s the way the process works.” — remarks Wednesday to reporters.
THE FACTS: That’s not how Mueller’s process worked. According to the report, Mueller’s team declined to “make a traditional prosecutorial judgment” on whether to indict — that is, do what prosecutors typically do, as Conway describes it — because of a Justice Department legal opinion that said sitting presidents shouldn’t be indicted. “Fairness concerns counseled against potentially reaching that judgment when no charges can be brought,” the report states.
As a result, the report factually laid out instances in which Trump might have obstructed justice, leaving it open for Congress to take up the matter or for prosecutors to do so once Trump leaves office. Mueller’s team wrote that its investigation was conducted “in order to preserve the evidence when memories were fresh” and documentary material available.
“Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,” the report states.
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HOGAN GIDLEY, White House deputy press secretary: “He’s already denounced, multiple times, Russian involvement.” — remarks Tuesday to reporters.
THE FACTS: Trump has had it both ways, at times criticizing that involvement but more often equivocating, and long after U.S. intelligence agencies and other parts of his administration became convinced of Russian meddling. “Every time he sees me, he says, ’I didn’t do that,’” Trump said of Putin in November 2017. “I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it.” In February 2018, he tweeted: “I never said Russia did not meddle in the election, I said ’it may be Russia, or China or another country or group, or it may be a 400 pound genius sitting in bed and playing with his computer.’”
Now he’s assailed the report by Mueller, whose investigation fleshed out the audacious Russian effort to shape the election in favor of Trump and resulted in indictments against 25 Russians accused either of hacking Democratic email accounts or sowing discord in America through social media, as well as Trump associates.
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TRUMP: “Isn’t it amazing that the people who were closest to me, by far, and knew the Campaign better than anyone, were never even called to testify before Mueller. The reason is that the 18 Angry Democrats knew they would all say ’NO COLLUSION’ and only very good things!” — tweet Monday.
THE FACTS: Trump’s wrong to suggest that the people “closest” to him weren’t called to testify before Mueller’s team.
Plenty of people close to him, including in his own family, interviewed with the special counsel’s investigators or were at least asked to appear. And of those who did, some said not very good things about their interactions with the president.
Among the advisers and aides who spoke with Mueller was McGahn, who extensively detailed Trump’s outrage at the investigation and his efforts to curtail it. McGahn told Mueller’s team how Trump called him at home and urged him to press the Justice Department to fire the special counsel, then told him to deny that the entire episode had taken place once it became public.
Mueller also interviewed Priebus, Bannon, former White House chief of staff John Kelly, former White House communications director Hope Hicks and White House press secretary Sarah Sanders.
Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer who once said he was so close to the president that he’d “take a bullet” for him, also cooperated with Mueller and delivered unflattering details.
Mueller certainly wanted to hear from Trump’s family too, even if not all relatives were eager to cooperate. His eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., declined to be voluntarily interviewed by investigators, according to Mueller’s report. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, spoke multiple times to Mueller’s team. One of the president’s daughters, Ivanka Trump, provided information through an attorney.
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GIDLEY: “It was Barack Obama who leaned over to Dmitry Medvedev in the Oval Office and said, ’Listen, we’ll have more flexibility when the election’s over.’” — remarks Tuesday.
THE FACTS: First, the conversation was in South Korea, not the Oval Office. Gidley accurately recounted the gist of what Obama was heard telling the Russian president on a microphone they didn’t know was on. But Gidley did not explain the context of the remark.
Obama was suggesting he would have more flexibility postelection to address Russia’s concerns about a NATO missile defense system in Europe. The conversation with Medvedev, who was soon succeeded by Vladimir Putin, had nothing to do with Russian meddling that would be exposed in the U.S. election four years away.
TRUMP: “The American people deserve to know who is in this Country. Yesterday, the Supreme Court took up the Census Citizenship question, a really big deal.” — tweet Wednesday.
GIDLEY, when asked whether Trump believes an accurate census count isn’t necessary: “He wants to know who’s in this country. I think as a sovereign nation we have that right. It’s been a question that’s been on the census for decades.” — remarks Tuesday.
THE FACTS: Not since 1950 has the census collected citizenship data from the whole population.
Moreover, Trump’s position that asking a citizenship question in the census is needed to “know who is in this country” ignores the judgment of the Census Bureau’s own researchers, who say that it would not result in the most accurate possible count of the U.S. population. The question is already asked in other government surveys.
According to January 2018 calculations by the Census Bureau, adding the question to the once-a-decade survey form would cause lower response rates among Hispanics and noncitizens. The government would have to spend at least $27.5 million for additional phone calls, home visits and other follow-up efforts to reach them.
Federal judges in California, Maryland and New York have blocked the administration from going forward with a citizenship question after crediting the analysis of agency experts. The experts said millions would go uncounted because Hispanics and immigrants might be reluctant to say if they or others in their households are not citizens.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has argued that a citizenship question is needed to help the government better comply with the Voting Rights Act. But the Justice Department has been enforcing the 1965 law, which was passed to help protect minority groups’ political rights, with citizenship data already available from other government surveys.
The count goes to the heart of the U.S. political system, determining the number of seats each state has in the U.S. House and how the electoral votes that decide presidential elections are distributed. It also shapes how 300 federal programs distribute more than $800 billion a year to local communities.
TRUMP retweet of RONNA MCDANIEL, Republican National Committee chairwoman: “If Joe Biden wants to keep score: In 8 years, Biden & Obama had a net loss of 193,000 manufacturing jobs. In just over 2 years, @realDonaldTrump has created 453,000 manufacturing jobs.” — tweet Thursday.
THE FACTS: McDaniel is right but presents a misleading portrait of economic growth during Barack Obama’s presidency, with Biden serving as vice president.
Obama’s eight years in office began with the final five months of the 17-month Great Recession, which began under his predecessor and included some of the worst stretches of job loss since World War II.
Manufacturing jobs bottomed out in February 2010, then grew steadily for the next six years before declining during Obama’s last year in office. Still, during that stretch the economy added 915,000 manufacturing jobs.
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