In a series of tweets March 17 and 18, President Trump made a number of inaccurate or misleading statements about the investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign. As a reader service, here’s a quick guide to his claims.
The president’s sweeping attack on the FBI, the Justice Department and the State Department appears to mostly refer to former FBI director James B. Comey, whom Trump fired in 2017, and former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe, who was fired late on March 16 for allegedly authorizing disclosures about the details of an investigation of the Clinton Foundation.
Comey, after he was fired, passed a memo concerning a conversation with Trump to a professor, in the hope, he said, that it would be disclosed to the media. The reference to the State Department is more obscure, but it may refer to contacts between two State Department officials and Christopher Steele, a former British spy who wrote the “dossier” that alleged connections between Trump and Russia.
The question of McCabe’s wife’s political activities emerged during the campaign, and Trump constantly has gotten the details incorrect. The timeline shows any connection to Hillary Clinton is pretty thin, although McCabe claims that Trump brought up his wife in almost every conversation.
On March 12, 2015, Jill McCabe, a hospital physician, announced her candidacy for the Virginia Senate. The political action committee of then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), a close Clinton ally, gave $452,500 to McCabe, and the state Democratic Party gave her campaign $207,788. That was about one-third of the $1.8 million budget for her campaign.
Meanwhile, on March 2, 2015, the New York Times first reported on Clinton’s email server setup while she was secretary of state. At the time, Andrew McCabe was running the FBI’s field office in Washington.
In July 2015, the FBI opened a criminal investigation of Clinton’s server. The D.C. field office provided resources and personnel to the email inquiry. In September, Andrew McCabe moved to the FBI’s headquarters, taking the No. 3 position.
In November 2015, Jill McCabe lost her race. Three months later, in February, Andrew McCabe became the FBI’s deputy director and part of an executive team overseeing the Clinton email investigation.
In any case, it’s hard to see how McAuliffe would know that the husband of someone he was supporting in a Virginia legislative race was going to be promoted months later.
In 2016, reports emerged that the FBI was investigating $120,000 in donations to McAuliffe’s campaign and inauguration made by U.S.-based companies controlled by Chinese businessman Wang Wenliang. No charges have been filed.
There are so many things incorrect in this single tweet that it’s hard to know where to begin.
First, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III was appointed because Trump fired Comey and then went on television and suggested that it was because of the Russia probe. That left the Justice Department little choice but to appoint an independent prosecutor. (Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself, so the decision was made by Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein.) Mueller’s investigation has yielded concrete evidence of Russian interference, including the indictments of Russian individuals and entities.
Second, the investigation did not start with the dossier written by Steele. (Steele was working for political research firm Fusion GPS, which has a contract with a law firm that worked for the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee.) Instead, it was a tip from the Australian government, which notified U.S. authorities about a drunken conversation between a Trump campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, and an Australian diplomat in May.
Papadopoulos claimed the Russians had “political dirt” on Clinton. The memo released by the Republican majority of the House Intelligence Committee, which Trump has approvingly cited, confirms the counterintelligence investigation of Russian interference began in July 2016, because of the tip about Papadopoulos. The information in the dossier came to the attention of the FBI later.
Third, there is no evidence the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) application to monitor Carter Page was used to spy on the Trump campaign. On Sept. 26, 2016, Page announced that he was taking “a leave of absence” from the campaign. On Oct. 21, the FBI received a FISA court order to begin surveillance on Page. So that was just days before the election — and after Page was no longer part of the campaign.
The order was renewed at least three more times over the next year, meaning that the FBI was able to convince the judges — all appointed by Republicans — that surveillance continued to help investigators.
As for the probe being a “witch hunt,” the number of guilty pleas and indictments demonstrates that Mueller is finding evidence of malfeasance.
This tweet is prompted by a passage in McCabe’s statement defending himself against charges of unauthorized leaking about the Clinton investigation: “I chose to share with a reporter through my public affairs officer and a legal counselor. As deputy director, I was one of only a few people who had the authority to do that. It was not a secret, it took place over several days, and others, including the director, were aware of the interaction with the reporter.”
During May 2017 testimony, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) asked Comey two key questions: “Director Comey, have you ever been an anonymous source in news reports about matters relating to the Trump investigation or the Clinton investigation?”
Comey replied: “Never.”
Then Grassley asked: “Question two and relatively related: Have you ever authorized someone else at the FBI to be an anonymous source in news reports about the Trump investigation or the Clinton investigation?”
Comey replied: “No.”
Whether Comey’s answer was untruthful may turn on the question of authorization. McCabe asserts that he had the authority to have the conversation with the reporter and that Comey was “aware of the interaction.” But he does not say Comey authorized the conversation — and Grassley did not ask whether Comey was aware of anyone in the FBI acting as an anonymous source.
Trump jumped to the conclusion that Comey lied. (He also changed the question asked by Grassley from “authorized” to “known,” precisely what we noted Grassley did not ask.) Nevertheless, Comey’s emphatic responses may cause him trouble.
Just because McCabe supposedly did not take notes, he still could have summarized the conversations for a memo immediately after the conversation. Comey had a practice of emailing his summary to a few close aides, thus creating a record and time stamp. The time between the conversation and the record of it would be an important part of establishing the memo’s credibility.
Mueller is a registered Republican, as is Rosenstein, who appointed him. Publicly available voter registration information shows that 13 of the 17 members of Mueller’s team have previously registered as Democrats, while four had no affiliation or their affiliation could not be found, The Washington Post reported.
Nine of the 17 made political donations to Democrats, their contributions totaling more than $57,000. The majority came from one person, who also contributed to Republicans. Six donated to Clinton.
Federal regulations prohibit the Justice Department from considering the political affiliation or political contributions of career appointees, including those appointed to the special counsel’s office. So Mueller is legally prohibited from considering the political affiliations of the people he has hired.
It’s worth noting that Trump was big donor to Democrats, including seven times to Hillary Clinton, before he decided to run for the Republican presidential nomination. Trump switched his party registration at least five times; he was a registered Democrat from 2001 to 2009.
Departures that made headlines during Trump’s administration
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