U.S. President Donald Trump keeps changing his story in the swirling investigations into Russia election interference and hush money payments to women who say they had affairs with him.
He insists that payments to porn actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal during the 2016 campaign were “private transactions” and that any crime committed would be the fault of his former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, not him. That’s a change from what the president said before. Trump previously had denied knowledge of payments and dismissed any hint of a crime.
In the special counsel’s probe into contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign, Trump tried to cast doubt on whether his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, had lied to the FBI. Flynn in fact pleaded guilty to doing just that.
Over the past week, Trump also made a flurry of false or unsupported statements about immigration. He said, with no evidence, that migrants are plagued with disease. He asserted that Mexico has in effect agreed to pay for his border wall, even as he threatens a partial government shutdown if Congress doesn’t approve billions of dollars to build it. He twisted federal statistics to claim the recent arrest of 10 terrorists who don’t exist.
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A look at the claims:
TRUMP: “Remember, Michael Cohen only became a ‘Rat’ after the FBI did something which was absolutely unthinkable & unheard of until the Witch Hunt was illegally started. They BROKE INTO AN ATTORNEY’S OFFICE!” — tweet Sunday.
THE FACTS: It was not a break-in. The FBI executed a search warrant obtained from a judge in conducting the raid and seizing records on a variety of matters, among them a $130,000 payment made to porn actress Stormy Daniels by Trump’s lawyer, Cohen. The application for the warrant was approved high in the Justice Department.
Former FBI director James Comey tweeted in response Sunday that Trump is “lying about the lawful execution of a search warrant issued by a federal judge.”
Even Fox News analyst Andrew McCarthy went after Trump for his tweet, McCarthy replied, "Sir, in mobster lingo, a ‘rat’ is a witness who tells prosecutors real incriminating info. Perhaps a different word? Searches of lawyer’s offices common enough that DOJ has a procedure for them. Here it yielded evidence of crimes you said he should be jailed for. You should stop."
Conservative media personality Ben Shapiro added, "Please listen to your lawyers and stop tweeting your thoughts on ongoing legal matters."
TRUMP: “I never directed him to do anything wrong. Whatever he did, he did on his own.” — interview Thursday with Fox News.
TRUMP: “I never directed Michael Cohen to break the law ... many campaign finance lawyers have strongly stated that I did nothing wrong with respect to campaign finance laws, if they even apply, because this was not campaign finance.” — tweets Thursday.
TRUMP: “So now the Dems go to a simple private transaction, wrongly call it a campaign contribution,...which it was not (but even if it was, it is only a CIVIL CASE, like Obama’s - but it was done correctly by a lawyer and there would not even be a fine. Lawyer’s liability if he made a mistake, not me). Cohen just trying to get his sentence reduced.” — tweets Dec. 10.
THE FACTS: Whatever the truth, his account is evolving. Trump’s description of the payments as a “simple private transaction” — which he couples with his insistence that “did nothing wrong” with respect to campaign finance laws — is not how he explained it just a few months ago.
In April, Trump issued a blanket denial that he knew anything about reports of $130,000 in hush-money paid to Daniels, saying reporters would “have to ask Michael Cohen.” A month later, he then acknowledged the payments as a “private contract.” Trump is now saying if something criminal happened, it would be solely Cohen’s fault as his former attorney.
Both Cohen and American Media Inc., the company that owns the National Enquirer tabloid, say they made hush-money payments to Daniels and McDougal for the purpose of helping Trump’s 2016 White House bid, a campaign finance violation. Both women alleged they had extramarital affairs with Trump, which the White House denies. Federal prosecutors say the payments were made at Trump’s direction.
For the payments themselves to be a crime rather than a civil infraction, prosecutors would need to show that Trump knew that what he was doing was wrong when he directed Cohen to pay the women and that he did so with the goal of benefiting his campaign.
It’s unclear what federal prosecutors in New York will decide to do if they conclude that there is evidence that Trump himself committed a crime. In the meantime, Trump’s changing version of the truth is running head-on into facts agreed to by prosecutors.
TRUMP: “Wow, 19,000 Texts between Lisa Page and her lover, Peter S of the FBI, in charge of the Russia Hoax, were just reported as being wiped clean and gone. Such a big story that will never be covered by the Fake News. Witch Hunt!” — tweet Saturday.
THE FACTS: The Justice Department’s watchdog, in a report released Thursday, found no evidence the FBI intentionally destroyed text messages of former FBI agent Peter Strzok and former FBI lawyer Lisa Page, who were involved in the Hillary Clinton email investigation when they worked for the bureau.
The inspector general faulted an FBI-wide software failure that has resulted in large portions of FBI text messages not being archived.
The report examined a gap in messages from December 2016 through May 2017 from the phones of Strzok and Page. The FBI ultimately managed to recover thousands of the messages.
Some congressional Republicans had suggested the messages were intentionally deleted. The inspector general report said there was no evidence Strzok and Page circumvented protocol. Strzok was removed from special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation after anti-Trump texts were discovered. He has since been fired. Page resigned.
TRUMP: “Well the FBI said Michael Flynn, a general and a great person, they said he didn’t lie. And Mueller said: ‘Well, maybe he did.’ And now they’re all having a big dispute, so I think it’s a great thing that the judge is looking into that situation. It’s an honor for a lot of terrific people.” — remarks Thursday.
THE FACTS: That’s not what the FBI said. And Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, has agreed that he lied to the FBI. He pleaded guilty to it and is to be sentenced this week — the first White House official punished as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing Russia investigation.
The idea that Flynn didn’t lie to the FBI picked up steam after Republicans on the House intelligence committee issued a report this year that said ex-FBI director James Comey, in a private briefing, told lawmakers that agents who interviewed Flynn “discerned no physical indications of deception” and saw “nothing that indicated to them that he knew he was lying to them.” But Comey called that description “garble” in a private interview with House lawmakers this month.
Comey, in essence, said Flynn was a good liar, having a “natural conversation” with agents, “answered fully their questions, didn’t avoid. That notwithstanding, they concluded he was lying.”
As for Trump’s comment that the judge is looking into the matter, it’s true U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan has asked for documents related to the agents who interviewed Flynn. It’s not clear from Sullivan’s order whether he considers there to be a dispute to resolve or if he just wants to see the underlying documents as he decides Flynn’s sentence.
TRUMP: “The Democrats policy of Child Seperation (sic) on the Border during the Obama Administration was far worse than the way we handle it now. Remember the 2014 picture of children in cages - the Obama years.” — tweet Sunday.
THE FACTS: Democratic President Barack Obama did not have a separation policy. The Trump administration didn’t, explicitly, either, but that was the effect of his zero tolerance policy, which meant that anyone caught crossing the border illegally was to be criminally prosecuted, even those with few or no previous offences.
The policy meant adults were taken to court for criminal proceedings and their children were separated. In most cases, if the charge took longer than 72 hours to process, which is the longest time that children can be held by Customs and Border Protection, children were sent into the care of the Health and Human Services Department. Zero tolerance remains in effect, but Trump signed an executive order June 20 that stopped separations.
Trump also misrepresents 2014 photos of children in holding cells. They did not involve family separation.
The photos, taken by The Associated Press during the Obama administration, showed children who came to the border without their parents and were being housed at a Customs and Border Protection center in Nogales, Arizona. The photos were identified as such but wrongly described online as illustrating imprisonment under Trump.
TRUMP: “People with tremendous medical difficulty and medical problems are pouring in, and in many — in many cases it’s contagious. They’re pouring into our country. We have to have border security.” — statement in Oval Office meeting Tuesday with Democratic leaders, Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer.
THE FACTS: Trump provided no evidence that people coming into the country, including the caravan at the U.S.-Mexico border, are carrying contagious diseases at a higher rate than the U.S. population. Medical screening is part of the process for vetting people who seek asylum.
A study published this month by the UCL-Lancet Commission on Migration and Health called scares about contagion one of the most pervasive myths about migrants. The study found no evidence that migrants pose a significant public health risk to countries such as the U.S. that have good health systems. In fact, migrants themselves face health threats from arduous journeys, violence along the way, or overcrowding in shelters or camps, the Lancet commission said. While some may come from regions where certain diseases are common, the report noted that international tourism and movement of animals spread illness, too.
As for the caravan and other migrants from the south, World Bank statistics show Mexico and Central America vaccinate most children against measles, sometimes at a bit higher rate than the U.S. Along the border between Mexico and California, public health departments have long had a system in place to watch for signs of outbreaks of a variety of illnesses, whether they’re immigration-related or not.
TRUMP: “Our Southern Border is now Secure and will remain that way.” — tweet Tuesday.
TRUMP: “We need border security. People are pouring into our country, including terrorists. We have terrorists. But we caught 10 terrorists. These are over the last very short period of time — 10. These are very serious people.” — statement in Oval Office meeting.
THE FACTS: Trump contradicted himself, declaring the border secure and insecure on the same day. And Trump is wrong about the government recently catching 10 terrorists.
His statement is a mangling of federal statistics showing that U.S. Customs and Border Protection stopped an average of seven to 10 people a day in the 2017 budget year who were denied entry to the U.S. because they were on a watch list. That average applied to all points of entry, and overwhelmingly from airports, and was not specific to the southern border. The standard for placing someone on the list is reasonable suspicion, a lower bar than the probable cause needed to arrest someone for an alleged crime. The statistics do not show how many might have been arrested or charged with anything.
In any event, Trump rendered a daily average as 10 recently captured terrorists in the flesh.
As for border security, U.S. arrests on the Mexican border jumped 78 percent in November from a year earlier to the highest level in Trump’s presidency. Increased arrests indicate that more people are trying to cross the border illegally.
PELOSI: “We came at a place to say, ‘How do we meet the needs of American people who have needs?’ The economy has — people are losing their jobs.” — Oval Office meeting.
TRUMP: “Well, we have the lowest unemployment that we’ve had in 50 years.” — Oval Office meeting.
THE FACTS: Trump is correct about jobs.
There may always be some layoffs even if the economy is strong. General Motors, for instance, said last month it would cut as many as 14,000 workers in North America in a restructuring aimed at generating cash to spend on innovation, even though U.S. auto sales are near historic highs.
But the U.S. economy has now added jobs for a record 98 straight months, dating to October 2010, during the Obama administration.
The Labor Department reported the unemployment rate in November stayed at 3.7 percent, a five-decade low, for the third straight month.
The job gains are pushing down unemployment rates to historically low levels for a variety of groups. The unemployment rate for men aged 20 and above fell last month to 3.3 percent, the lowest in 18 years. The rate for Americans with just high school diplomas dropped to 3.5 percent, the lowest since December 2000. The African-American jobless rate declined to 5.9 percent, matching May’s figure as the lowest on record.
That’s making it more challenging for businesses to find the workers they need. Employers have posted 7 million open jobs, outnumbering the ranks of the unemployed, which fell last month to just under 6 million.
TRUMP: “I often stated, ‘One way or the other, Mexico is going to pay for the Wall.’ This has never changed. Our new deal with Mexico (and Canada), the USMCA, is so much better than the old, very costly & anti-USA NAFTA deal, that just by the money we save, MEXICO IS PAYING FOR THE WALL!” — tweet Thursday.
THE FACTS: This is a face-saving statement to mask the fact that Mexico refused to pay for a U.S. border wall, Trump gave up trying to make it do so and U.S. taxpayers are on the hook for it.
In essence, Trump is arguing that new terms of trade with Mexico will increase economic growth in the U.S. and produce more tax revenue. That’s what everyone hopes trade agreements will do. As part of that, he hopes for a lower trade deficit with Mexico. Neither outcome is assured.
The deal negotiated with Mexico and Canada is an update of the North American Free Trade Agreement he railed against, not a transformative pact. The three countries will continue trading in an environment of mainly low or no tariffs, with improvements here and there for all three partners. There is no credible way for Trump to forecast additional growth covering costs that are being charged to U.S. taxpayers if the wall is built. Trade balances depend on too many factors — consumer tastes, exchange rates, overall economic performance, and the choices of thousands of companies among them — and some are well outside any government’s control.
Trump specifically promised in the campaign that Mexico would pay for the wall. That is not the same as trying to reduce the U.S. trade deficit, which is about the exchange of goods and services among private entities rather than payments between governments. Nor is a trade deficit necessarily a penalty on consumers. It is the result of consumers buying things made in another country.
He wants some $25 billion from Congress for wall construction over five years and promises a partial government shutdown if he does not get a $5 billion or so portion in the next week. Congress may or may not give him that. If it does, it will not be because lawmakers expect a refund to the treasury in future years from extra growth produced by a trade deal.
TRUMP: “Tremendous amounts of wall have already been built.” — statement in meeting Tuesday with Pelosi and Schumer.
TRUMP: “People do not yet realize how much of the Wall, including really effective renovation, has already been built.” We have already built large new sections & fully renovated others, making them like new.” — tweets.
THE FACTS: Tremendous portions of the wall have not been built. Yes, some barrier renovation has happened, but little wall construction has been completed under Trump.
Congress allocated roughly $1.4 billion in the spring — a bit more than 5 percent of what Trump wanted — for border security and specified that the money was not to be used for construction of the prototype wall sections that stand near San Diego. Instead, the money is to strengthen or replace existing fencing with more secure fencing.
Altogether, Trump promised in the campaign that he’d build a 1,000-mile (1,600 kilometer-) wall, as high as 40 feet or 12 meters (and have Mexico pay for it, which isn’t happening). If some 650 miles (1,050 km) of existing fencing are considered in the equation, that leaves him with about 350 miles (560 km) of wall to build.