After two years of waiting, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report was released on Thursday. The document noted 10 times President Trump sought to influence the investigation, often by directing his aides to either lie or mislead.
Although Mueller concluded that the president’s efforts were “mostly unsuccessful” because “the persons who surrounded the president declined to carry out his orders or accede to his requests,” one individual was singled out by Mueller for less-honorable conduct: White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, who on at least three occasions perpetuated a false narrative.
During an interview Friday morning, ABC television host George Stephanopoulos pressed Sanders about two public statements — the first involving the firing of then FBI-director James B. Comey.
In May 2017, after Trump fired Comey, Sanders — then serving as deputy White House press secretary — told reporters that Trump and members of federal law enforcement no longer had confidence in him. She claimed to have heard from “countless” former and current FBI agents.
According to the report, “Sanders told this Office that her reference to hearing from ‘countless members of the FBI’ was a ‘slip of the tongue.’”
The report went on to say: “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.” Sanders acknowledged to investigators that the comments were baseless.
What Sanders called a “slip of the tongue,” Stephanopoulos called a “deliberate false statement.”
“Why can’t you acknowledge that what you said then was not true?” he prodded her during the Friday segment.
Despite Mueller’s assertions, Sanders stood behind her statement.
“I said the ‘slip of the tongue’ was in using the word ‘countless,’” Sanders replied. “But there were a number of FBI, both former and current, that agreed with the president’s decision.”
Switching the focus, she told Stephanopoulos that Comey was a “disgraced leaker” and a “dirty cop.”
The host also pressed Sanders on her statements about the Trump Tower meeting on June 9, 2016, between Trump campaign officials, including Donald Trump Jr., and Russians who had offered derogatory information on Hillary Clinton.
To preempt a story the New York Times planned to publish, a month later Trump Jr. posted redacted images of the emails setting up the meeting on Twitter. In an initial statement, Trump Jr. claimed that “the meeting ‘primarily’ concerned ‘a program about the adoption of Russian children.’”
At the time, Sanders told the press that Trump “certainly didn’t dictate” the statement, but that “he weighed in, offered suggestions like any father would do.”
Although she had previously claimed that the president did not dictate the statement, Trump’s lawyers said he did.
According to Mueller, several months later Trump’s attorney told the special counsel’s office that “the President dictated a short but accurate response to the New York Times article on behalf of his son, Donald Trump, Jr.”
When questioned about the discrepancy Friday, Sanders backtracked and parsed her words. The president did not “dictate” the statement, she explained on air, but “weighed in” and “relayed information he wanted included.”
Then the press secretary returned to the regularly repeated refrain — this was a “two and a half year witch hunt that has hurt our country,” she said.
“There wasn’t collusion with Russia,” Sanders added.