There are so many twists and turns in the story involving President Trump and his team and Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections. As a public service, The Fact Checker is keeping track of the various tentacles of this complex saga, and highlighting any inconsistencies or falsehoods we can find.
Reviewing our fact checks so far, it’s clear that in many cases, the White House’s rhetoric shifted as The Washington Post or the New York Times uncovered new information, and revealed that officials were being misleading or obfuscating the truth with their rhetoric. Since January 2017, we compiled numerous timelines just to keep track of what Trump and his aides said, when they said it, what the public knew at the time of their statements, and how they shifted over time. We also fact-checked misleading attacks by Democrats about actions by Trump administration officials.
The special counsel’s investigation is underway, so this story keeps evolving. Each fact check, and this roundup, will be updated as new information becomes available.
Here’s a chronological compilation of 14 Trump-Russia fact checks since January 2017. We linked to video fact checks where available. Click on the headline to read each column.
On Jan. 6, 2017, U.S. intelligence agencies published a “high-confidence” assessment that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a cyberattack during the 2016 presidential election with the aim of undermining faith in the U.S. democratic process and hurting Hillary Clinton’s electability. We decoded then-White House chief of staff Reince Priebus’s spin, misleading the public in an effort to play down the findings in the assessment.
On Feb. 13, 2017, then-national security adviser Michael Flynn was fired. White House officials knew for weeks that Flynn had misled about the nature of his December 2016 calls with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, but he was only pressured to resign after The Post uncovered it. Flynn’s statements to The Post shifted from an outright denial to a less equivocal one as The Post uncovered more information. We compiled a timeline of events, dating to December 2016, that led to Flynn’s firing.
On March 1, The Post reported that Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2016 had met twice with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, but did not disclose them in his Senate confirmation hearing. In a swipe at Sessions, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) tweeted that she had no calls or meetings with the Russian ambassador over her 10 years on the Senate Armed Services Committee. But we easily found earlier tweets from 2013 and 2015 that showed she did, indeed, have such interactions with the Russian ambassador in the past. McCaskill received Three Pinocchios.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) rebuked Sessions for not disclosing his contacts with Kislyak, and claimed Congress impeached President Bill Clinton “for something far less” than what Sessions had done. But that description was a stretch. While the Sessions and Clinton cases both involve statements made under oath, the circumstances were vastly different. (Later, Sessions would recuse himself from the Trump-Russia investigation due to his campaign contacts with Kislyak.) Pelosi earned Two Pinocchios.
On May 8, former acting attorney general Sally Yates testified that she had informed White House Counsel on Jan. 26 that Flynn lied about the nature of his calls with Kislyak. Yet it took 18 days — and The Post’s reporting — for Trump to act. In response to Yates’s testimony, Trump blamed former president Barack Obama for giving Flynn a security clearance in the first place and elevating Flynn. But this was just a distraction with little factual basis. Trump received Three Pinocchios.
On May 9, 2017, Trump fired James B. Comey as FBI director. As a justification, Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions pointed to Comey’s handling of the agency’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server. But during the 2016 presidential campaigns, neither Trump nor Sessions was outwardly critical of Comey’s decisions — at least in the same way they were in May 2017. In this column, we explored inconsistencies in both men’s rhetoric over Comey’s handling of the Clinton investigation.
Over the three days after Comey’s firing, the exact reason for his dismissal remained elusive. In this column, we outlined all the contradictory explanations from Trump and his White House. At first, Trump said he was merely acting on a Justice Department recommendation. Several explanations later, Trump ultimately revealed that he had planned on firing Comey all along, because Trump did not want Comey overseeing the FBI investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
On May 15, The Post reported that Trump revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in a White House meeting, and that Trump’s disclosures jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State. In response, national security adviser H.R. McMaster made comments that obscured the fact that he essentially confirmed the key factual elements of The Post article. In this column, we translated McMaster’s rhetoric.
By the end of May, it was clear that the story of Flynn merged with the firing of Comey. So we compiled a new timeline of events incorporating both story lines, showing the complicated relationship between Trump and Comey.
On June 8, Comey testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee and offered his version of events for the first time. The testimony revealed several contradictory statements made by Trump and Comey, about the same meetings and discussions. We also compiled a Fact Checker video timeline of the he-said, he-said story.
No matter what new development is revealed in the Trump-Russia story, one thing has remained consistent: Trump blames the Democrats, not the Russians. Trump calls it a “hoax,” “witch hunt” and “fake news” — despite findings by the U.S. intelligence community, and even after the White House confirmed reports of his team’s interactions with Russians.
After Comey was fired, former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III was appointed special counsel to oversee the Russia investigation and related matters. As Mueller assembled his team of investigators, Trump and his surrogates began attacking donations made by some of Mueller’s attorneys. They questioned Mueller’s independence, as some members of his team previously donated to Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or the Democratic Party. But this is a baseless attack; legally and under federal ethics rules, such donations pose no conflict of interest. Trump earned Three Pinocchios.
In June, Mueller widened the scope of his investigation, including whether Trump obstructed justice when firing Comey. As a result, with every new development, Trump’s critics are quick to call for his impeachment and label his actions as obstruction of justice. But it’s not so simple, and the complexities of the process get muddled with heated rhetoric. In this column, we answered some key questions about obstruction of justice, impeachment and executive privilege.
On July 8, 2017, the New York Times revealed that Donald Trump Jr. met with a Russian attorney with ties to the Kremlin during the 2016 campaign. In following days, Trump Jr. provided contradictory and misleading statements that shifted as the Times uncovered new information about the meeting. While Trump Jr. previously claimed that he never set up a meeting with a Russian national for campaign purposes, that turned out to be false.
In response to questions about the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia, the White House began deflecting to efforts by a Ukrainian American operative to expose former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s ties to the Russian government. The White House now claims that the real story of coordination is between the Clinton campaign and Ukraine. But this is a facile comparison, with key differences between the situations that make them fundamentally different. We left the claim unrated for now, because we do not know the full set of facts in either the Trump-Russia or Clinton-Ukraine stories.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders asserted that Fusion GPS, a research firm run by ex-journalists, “took money from the Russian government” while it arranged for the creation of a dossier about Trump’s ties to Russia.But she is mixing up two, unrelated clients of the firm. There were Russian entities involved, but there is currently no evidence that the Russian government paid for Fusion’s work on the defense of a Russian bank accused of fraud at the same time Fusion investigated Trump’s business dealings in Russia. Huckabee earned Three Pinocchios for spin that fell flat.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders suggested former FBI Director James B. Comey may have violated the law by leaking his memo. But Sanders claim is hard to justify. She said Comey, “by his own self-admission, leaked privileged government information,” but he said it was a personal memo, not a government one. Whether it contained privileged information has not been proven. To some extent, the level of possible violations is a judgment call, open to legal interpretation, making it problematic to assign a Pinocchio rating. But at the very least, Sanders’s spin is worthy of Two Pinocchios for its innuendo and incomplete or inaccurate information.
As a service to readers, The Fact Checker provided a brief guide to the latest developments in the tangled allegations involving Russia, President Trump and Hillary Clinton. For both “the dossier” — a collection of 17 memos concerning Trump and Russia written by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele — and the sale of a U.S. uranium company to a Russian entity, we provided the necessary background and an explanation of what was new and what was controversial about the allegations.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions testified on two occasions that he was “not aware” of anyone on the Trump campaign that had communications with Russians. But the veracity of his testimony was called into question first after it was revealed that Sessions had met with the Russian Ambassador twice during the campaign and then again, after George Papadopoulos’s plea agreement was unsealed. The plea agreement detailed a meeting Sessions attended where Papadopoulos broached the idea of a Trump-Putin meeting.
The release of George Papadopoulus’s plea agreement and Carter Page’s testimony raised questions more questions about the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russians. The campaign and the White House have denied and down-played these connections. However, we now know members of the Trump campaign interacted with Russians at least 31 times throughout the campaign including 19 known meetings. Knowledge of these communications went to the highest levels of Donald Trump’s operation — including to former campaign managers Corey Lewandowski and Paul Manafort.
On Dec. 1, former national security advisor Michael Flynn plead guilty to lying to the FBI about his contact with foreign officials. Court documents detailed calls between Flynn, who at the time was the incoming national security advisor, and the Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. After initial denials, it was revealed not only that Flynn did discussed sanctions with Kislayk, but also that he had lied to members of the administration about these conversations.
At the time, Trump said it was this lie that led to his firing. However, the court documents along with testimony from former FBI Director James B. Comey and former acting Attorney General Sally Yates suggest Trump knew about Flynn’s dishonesty for over two weeks before the firing. We compiled a timeline of the known events during the seven weeks in question.
Updated: Do Russia probe attorneys’ donations to Democrats threaten their independence? (with video)
After Comey was fired, former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III was appointed special counsel to oversee the Russia investigation and related matters. As Mueller assembled his team of investigators, Trump and his surrogates began attacking donations made by some of Mueller’s attorneys. They questioned Mueller’s independence, as some members of his team previously donated to Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or the Democratic Party. But this is a baseless attack; legally and under federal ethics rules, such donations pose no conflict of interest. We updated our initial list of attorneys to reflect all of the currently known members of Trump’s team, but Trump (still) earned Three Pinocchios.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) referred former British intelligence officer and author of the Trump ‘dossier’ Christopher Steele for a criminal investigation by the Justice Department. The referral was vague about the specific reasons, but Graham later said that Steele was “an informant” for the FBI and that he “shopped the dossier all over the world.”
We know Graham is mischaracterizing Steele’s relationship to the FBI. He was not an “informant,” but he was certainly informing officials about his reports. Whether he was “shopping” the material is a matter of opinion, but clearly at the direction of Fusion, Steele tried to interest reporters in his findings on Russia and Trump. We compiled what you need to know about how Steele, the ‘dossier’ and the FBI are connected.
Republicans have increasingly claimed that the memo written by GOP staff members of the House Intelligence Committee shows how the FBI conspired with Democrats to interfere in the election and even spy on the Trump campaign. But the memo doesn’t back up this claim — it undermines it.
The surveillance on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page began long after he had supposedly left the campaign. Trump denies he ever met or spoke to Page. So it’s hard to see how a court order on a former campaign adviser — less than three weeks before the election — would constitute spying on the campaign.
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