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Opinion The Mueller report nails Sarah Sanders on an extravagant fabrication

Ignore the critics who say Sarah Huckabee Sanders's stonewalling makes press briefings a waste of time. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

Even among the falsehoods and absurdities that have poured forth from this White House, this one stuck out: In May 2017, after President Trump fired then-FBI Director James B. Comey, Sarah Sanders — then serving as deputy White House press secretary — provided personal testimony that the abrupt move was good for the department’s morale. Not only had Trump lost confidence in Comey, said Sanders, but so too had the “rest of the FBI.”

As though the deputy White House press secretary were the expert on the views of the FBI’s rank and file.

Read the full, redacted Mueller report

When a reporter at a May 2017 White House briefing — back in the days when such briefings were a regular occurrence — told Sanders that sentiments from the FBI contradicted her assertion, she responded, “Look, we’ve heard from countless members of the FBI that say very different things.”

There was a great deal of skepticism among reporters that Sanders and Co. had indeed heard such words of support. That skepticism, as it turns out, was well-founded. The redacted report from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, released Thursday, contains this passage about the veracity of Sanders’s characterizations:

In the afternoon of May 10, 2017, deputy press secretary Sarah Sanders spoke to the President about his decision to fire Comey and then spoke to reporters in a televised press conference. Sanders told reporters that the President, the Department of Justice, and bipartisan members of Congress had lost confidence in Comey, " [a]nd most importantly, the rank and file of the FBI had lost confidence in their director. Accordingly, the President accepted the recommendation of his Deputy Attorney General to remove James Comey from his position." In response to questions from reporters, Sanders said that Rosenstein decided “on his own” to review Comey’s performance and that Rosenstein decided “on his own” to come to the President on Monday, May 8 to express his concerns about Comey. When a reporter indicated that the “vast majority” of FBI agents supported Comey, Sanders said, "Look, we’ve heard from countless members of the FBI that say very different things. " Following the press conference, Sanders spoke to the President, who told her she did a good job and did not point out any inaccuracies in her comments. Sanders told this Office that her reference to hearing from “countless members of the FBI” was a “slip of the tongue.” She also recalled that her statement in a separate press interview that rank-and-file FBI agents had lost confidence in Comey was a comment she made “in the heat of the moment” that was not founded on anything.

That passage is based on an FBI memo based on an interview with Sanders, according to footnotes. Meaning: Sanders was happy to make stuff up “in the heat of the moment” while she’s talking to the media, but when she’s talking with the law, she shifts to something more closely resembling the truth.

Among the many lessons to emerge from this revelation is how little regard Team Trump has for reputations. They thought nothing of trashing the man Trump had suddenly decided to fire, regardless of the facts. The administration’s search for a justification snaked through Comey’s handling of the Clinton email investigation — which helped Trump get elected — as well as his management of the bureau — and whether the men and women on the “front lines” favored his leadership. In those hectic days, there were plenty of voices affirming that Comey was, indeed, a manager of considerable popularity within the FBI. “The majority, the vast majority of FBI employees enjoyed a deep and positive connection to Director Comey,” said then-acting FBI director Andrew McCabe in congressional testimony shortly after Comey’s dismissal. An FBI internal survey later showed declines in key employee metrics a year after the firing.

The Post’s View: The Mueller report is the opposite of exoneration

The claim from Sanders about a groundswell of FBI types applauding the firing of Comey sounded implausible enough that reporters kept badgering the deputy press secretary on the matter. The day after her assertion about “countless” employees, Sanders was asked to square her own assessment with that of McCabe before Congress. Her answer:

MS. SANDERS: Well, I can speak to my own personal experience. I’ve heard from countless members of the FBI that are grateful and thankful for the President’s decision. And I think that we may have to agree to disagree. I’m sure that there are some people that are disappointed, but I certainly heard from a large number of individuals — and that’s just myself — and I don’t even know that many people in the FBI.

Another round:

Q And one last question, just to follow up on the FBI thing. And I’m not trying to be overly combative here, but you said now today, and I think you said again yesterday, that you personally have talked to countless FBI officials, employees, since this happened.
MS. SANDERS: Correct.
Q I mean, really? So are we talking —
MS. SANDERS: Between like email, text messages — absolutely.
Q Like 50?
Q Sixty, seventy?
MS. SANDERS: Look, we’re not going to get into a numbers game. I mean, I have heard from a large number of individuals that work at the FBI that said that they’re very happy with the President’s decision. I mean, I don’t know what I else I can say.

There’s an echo of Fox News in what Sanders was attempting to allege. Throughout the Mueller era, Fox News host Sean Hannity has attempted to convince his viewers that the leadership of U.S. law enforcement — Comey, McCabe and various other big shots — were possessed of anti-Trump corruption, while the rank-and-file of the FBI and other agencies has remained pure and committed as ever to American principles of justice. Propagating the lie that FBI agents were excited about the firing of Comey was one way of advancing this myth.

The Erik Wemple Blog emailed Sanders a request for comment and received an automatic response that she is out of the office.

As for grand takeaways, it’s fair to say that this episode crimps her wish to be remembered as a “transparent and honest” official.

Read more:

E.J. Dionne: Mueller’s report is the beginning, not the end

Greg Sargent and Paul Waldman: The Mueller report leaves little doubt: Trump obstructed justice

Harry Litman: The conclusion of the Mueller probe laid bare grave institutional failures

Alexandra Petri: My book report on ‘The Mueller Report’

Eugene Robinson: Only Congress can hold Trump accountable now

Gary Abernathy: The Mueller report is out. The other shoe may drop soon.

Ed Rogers: The Mueller report is in its supernova stage