If special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation makes one thing clear, it’s that many of the news reports that President Trump branded as “fake news” were, in fact, very real news indeed.
While Mueller’s report didn’t establish a criminal conspiracy and was “unable” to conclude that obstruction of justice occurred — contrary to hours of speculation among cable-news pundits during Mueller’s long investigation — it also largely validated news accounts that Trump dismissed or disparaged.
Instead, at least in the Mueller team’s analysis, the fake news seems to have flowed not from the media but from the other direction. His report, released Thursday, cites multiple instances in which Trump and White House aides misled or lied to journalists or in public statements as the investigation was unfolding.
On the day of Mueller’s appointment, in May 2017, for example, White House aides said Trump reacted calmly to the news. In fact, according to Mueller’s report, Trump’s first reaction was anything but calm. According to notes taken by an aide, Trump responded by saying, “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I’m fucked. . . . This is the worst thing that ever happened to me.”
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters repeatedly in May 2017 that she personally had heard from “countless members of the FBI” that they were “grateful and thankful” to Trump for firing FBI director James B. Comey. That never happened, Mueller said. He wrote that Sanders later acknowledged to investigators that her comments were “not founded on anything.”
Trump also dictated a press statement saying that he had fired Comey based on the recommendations of Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein. But Mueller found that Trump had already decided to fire Comey before Rosenstein had weighed in. Trump backed down and later publicly acknowledged he intended to fire Comey regardless of Rosenstein’s memo after unnamed Justice Department officials “made clear to him” that they would “resist” the bogus justification, Mueller said.
Incoming White House aides also lied about press accounts they knew were accurate. Former national security adviser Michael Flynn directed an aide, K.T. McFarland, to call Washington Post columnist David Ignatius during the presidential transition in January 2017 and deny Ignatius’s reporting about Flynn’s conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. McFarland “knew she was providing false information” when she called Ignatius to dispute Ignatius’s surmise that Flynn had discussed removing sanctions on Russia with Kislyak. (Prompted by McFarland’s call, The Post updated the column to note that a “Trump official” denied that Flynn discussed sanctions.)
Trump and his aides also knocked down an accurate New York Times story in May 2017 reporting that the president had asked Comey for loyalty during a private dinner several months before Comey’s firing.
Trump even lied about who invited whom to dinner: He told NBC News anchor Lester Holt in an interview that month Comey had asked for it because “he wanted to stay on.” Mueller found evidence that the president extended the invitation to Comey on Jan. 27.
On the eve of Comey’s testimony to Congress that May, Trump sought to raise questions about Comey’s credibility, when — as Mueller found — it was Trump’s credibility that was questionable. At the time, Trump tweeted, “James Comey better hope there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversation before he starts leaking to the press!”
Comey’s contemporaneous accounts of his meeting with Trump and corroboration from his FBI colleagues also show that another New York Times story, branded as “Fake Media” by the president, was true. The Times reported that Trump had asked Comey to end the investigation of Flynn; Mueller found “substantial evidence” that this was true, despite Trump publicly saying otherwise.
Trump also misled the public with a vague statement in response to the Times’ inquiries about a meeting his son, Donald Trump Jr., and other top campaign officials had with Russian operatives in Trump Tower during the campaign. Trump Jr. had taken the meeting based on the prospect of receiving damaging information about Hillary Clinton from the Russians. But Trump ordered his communications director, Hope Hicks, to issue a statement saying Trump Jr. merely took a brief meeting and it was about adoption, Mueller reported.
Trump also tried to persuade then-White House Counsel Donald McGahn to deny stories in The Washington Post and the Times in early 2018 that Trump had asked McGahn to fire Mueller about seven months earlier. McGahn refused repeatedly to undercut the stories because he knew they were “accurate in reporting on the President’s effort to have the Special Counsel removed.”
Mueller noted that Trump “challenged” his lawyer for taking notes of their conversation.
“Why do you take notes?” he asked McGahn, according to the report. “Lawyers don’t take notes. I never had a lawyer who took notes.”
McGahn said he kept notes because he is a “real lawyer” and to establish a record.
Trump replied, “I’ve had a lot of great lawyers, like Roy Cohn. He did not take notes.’’
Cohn, who was chief counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) during McCarthy’s communist-hunting hearings in the 1950s, was disbarred by a New York court in 1986 because of “dishonesty, fraud, deceit and misrepresentation.”
Margaret Sullivan contributed to this report.