President Donald Trump listened to Robert Mueller testify to Congress this past week, then misrepresented what the former special counsel said. Some partisans on both sides did much the same, whether to defend or condemn the president.
Trump seized on Mueller’s testimony to claim anew that he was exonerated by the Russia investigation, which the president wasn’t. He capped the week by wishing aloud that President Barack Obama had received some of the congressional scrutiny he’s endured, ignoring the boatload of investigations, subpoenas and insults visited on the Democrat and his team.
Highlights from a week in review:
TRUMP on Democrats: “All they want to do is impede, they want to investigate. They want to go fishing. … We want to find out what happened with the last Democrat president. Let’s look into Obama the way they’ve looked at me. Let’s subpoena all of the records having to do with Hillary Clinton and all of the nonsense that went on with Clinton and her foundation and everything else. Could do that all day long. Frankly, the Republicans were gentlemen and women when we had the majority in the House. They didn’t do subpoenas all day long. They didn’t do what these people are doing. What they’ve done is a disgrace.” — Oval Office remarks Friday.
THE FACTS: He’s distorting recent history. Republicans made aggressive use of their investigative powers when they controlled one chamber or the other during the Obama years. Moreover, matters involving Hillary Clinton, her use of email as secretary of state, her conduct of foreign policy and the Clinton Foundation were very much part of their scrutiny. And they weren’t notably polite about it.
Over a few months in 2016, House Republicans unleashed a barrage of subpoenas in what minority Democrats called a “desperate onslaught of frivolous attacks” against Clinton. In addition, Clinton was investigated by the FBI.
Earlier, a half-dozen GOP-led House committees conducted protracted investigations of the 2012 attacks on U.S. diplomats in Benghazi, Libya. Republican-led investigations of the 2009-2011 Operation Fast and Furious episode — a botched initiative against drug cartels that ended up putting guns in the hands of violent criminals — lasted into the Trump administration.
On the notion that Obama was treated with courtesy by GOP “gentlemen and women,” Trump ignored an episode at Obama’s 2013 speech to Congress that was shocking at the time.
“You lie!” Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina hollered at Obama. His outburst came when Obama attempted to assure lawmakers that his health care initiative would not provide coverage to people in the U.S. illegally.
Obama also faced persistent innuendo over the country of his birth. Trump himself was a leading voice raising baseless suspicions that Obama was born outside the U.S.
TRUMP: “We’re getting the remains back.” — Fox News interview Thursday.
THE FACTS: No remains of U.S. service members have been returned since last summer and the U.S. suspended efforts in May to get negotiations on the remains back on track in time to have more repatriated this year. It hopes more remains may be brought home next year.
The Pentagon’s Defense POW-MIA Accounting Agency, which is responsible for recovering U.S. war remains and returning them to families, “has not received any new information from (North Korean) officials regarding the turn over or recovery of remains,” spokesman Charles Prichard said this month.
He said his agency is “still working to communicate” with the North Korean army “as it is our intent to find common ground on resuming recovery missions” in 2020.
Last summer, in line with the first summit between Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un that June, the North turned over 55 boxes of what it said were the remains of an undetermined number of U.S. service members killed in the North during the 1950-53 war. So far, six Americans have been identified from the 55 boxes.
U.S. officials have said the North has suggested in recent years that it holds perhaps 200 sets of American war remains. Thousands more are unrecovered from battlefields and former POW camps.
The Pentagon estimates that 5,300 Americans were lost in North Korea.
TRUMP to his critics, in a fundraising letter from his 2020 campaign: “How many times do I have to be exonerated before they stop?” — during Mueller’s testimony Wednesday.
THE FACTS: Trump has not been exonerated by Mueller at all. “No,” Mueller said when asked during his Capitol Hill questioning whether he had cleared the president of criminal wrongdoing in the investigation that looked into the 2016 Trump campaign’s relations with Russians and Russia’s interference in the U.S. election.
In his report, Mueller said his team declined to make a prosecutorial judgment on whether to charge Trump, partly because of a Justice Department legal opinion that said sitting presidents shouldn’t be indicted.
As a result, his detailed report factually laid out instances in which Trump might have obstructed justice, leaving it up to Congress to take up the matter.
As well, Mueller looked into a potential criminal conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign and said the investigation did not collect sufficient evidence to establish criminal charges on that front.
Following Mueller’s testimony, Trump abruptly took a different stance on the special counsel’s report. After months of claiming exoneration, and only hours after stating as much in the fundraising letter while the hearing unfolded, Trump incongruously flipped, saying “He didn’t have the right to exonerate.”
TRUMP, on why Mueller did not recommend charges: “He made his decision based on the facts, not based on some rule.” — remarks to reporters Wednesday after the hearings.
THE FACTS: Mueller did not say that.
The special counsel said his team never reached a determination on charging Trump. At no point has he suggested that he made that decision because the facts themselves did not support charges.
The rule Trump refers to is the Justice Department legal opinion that says sitting presidents are immune from indictment — and that guidance did restrain the investigators, though it was not the only factor in play.
JOE BIDEN, Democratic presidential contender: “Mueller said there was enough evidence to bring charges against the president after he is president of the United States, when he is a private citizen … that’s a pretty compelling thing.” — speaking to reporters in Dearborn, Michigan.
THE FACTS: Mueller did not say that, either. He deliberately drew no conclusions about whether he collected sufficient evidence to charge Trump with a crime.
Mueller said that if prosecutors want to charge Trump once he is out of office, they would have that ability because obstacles to indicting a sitting president would be gone.
Even that came with a caveat, though. Mueller did not answer whether the statute of limitations might put Trump off limits to an indictment should he win re-election.
Biden spoke after being briefed on the hearings and prefaced his remark with a request to “correct me if I’m wrong.”
Rep. JOHN RATCLIFFE, R-Texas, to Mueller: “You didn’t follow the special counsel regulations. It clearly says, write a confidential report about decisions reached. Nowhere in here does it say write a report about decisions that weren’t reached. You wrote 180 pages — 180 pages — about decisions that weren’t reached, about potential crimes that weren’t charged or decided. …This report was not authorized under the law to be written.” — hearing Wednesday.
THE FACTS: Mueller’s report is lawful. Nothing in Justice Department regulations governing special counsels prevents Mueller from saying what he did in the report.
It is true that the regulations provide for the special counsel to submit a “confidential report” to the attorney general explaining his decisions to recommend for or against a prosecution. But it was Attorney General William Barr who made the decision to make the report public, which is his right.
Special counsels have wide latitude, and are not directed to avoid writing about “potential crimes that weren’t charged or decided,” as Ratcliffe put it.
Mueller felt constrained from bringing charges because of the apparent restriction on indicting sitting presidents. But his report left open the possibility that Congress could use the information in an impeachment proceeding or that Trump could be charged after he leaves office.
The factual investigation was conducted “in order to preserve the evidence when memories were fresh and documentary materials were available,” the report said.
In a tweet, Neal Katyal, who drafted the Justice Department regulations, wrote: “Ratcliffe dead wrong about the Special Counsel regs. I drafted them in 1999. They absolutely don’t forbid the Mueller Report. And they recognize the need for a Report ‘both for historical purposes and to enhance accountability.’”
Rep. MIKE JOHNSON, R-La., addressing Mueller: “Millions of Americans today maintain genuine concerns about your work in large part because of the infamous and widely publicized bias of your investigating team members, which we now know included 14 Democrats and zero Republicans.” — hearing Wednesday.
THE FACTS: Johnson echoes a widely repeated false claim by Trump that the Mueller probe was biased because the investigators were all a bunch of “angry Democrats.” In fact, Mueller himself is a Republican.
Some have given money to Democratic candidates over the years. But Mueller could not have barred them from serving on that basis because regulations prohibit the consideration of political affiliation for personnel actions involving career attorneys. Mueller reported to Barr, and before him, then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who were both Trump appointees.
TRUMP, on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York: “She called our country and our people garbage. She said garbage. That’s worse than deplorable. Remember deplorable?” — remarks Tuesday at gathering of conservative youth.
THE FACTS: Ocasio-Cortez did not label people “garbage.” She did use that term, somewhat indirectly, to describe the state of the country.
Arguing for a liberal agenda at a South by Southwest event in March, she said the U.S. shouldn’t settle for centrist policies because they would produce only marginal improvement — “10% better” than the “garbage” of where the country is now.
Trump has been assailing Ocasio-Cortez and three other liberal Democratic women of color in the House for more than a week, ever since he posted tweets saying they should “go back” to their countries, though all are U.S. citizens and all but one was born in the U.S.
TRUMP: “And when they’re saying all of this stuff, and then those illegals get out and vote — because they vote anyway. Don’t kid yourself, those numbers in California and numerous other states, they’re rigged. You got people voting that shouldn’t be voting. They vote many times, not just twice, not just three times. They vote — it’s like a circle. They come back, they put a new hat on. They come back, they put a new shirt. And in many cases, they don’t even do that. You know what’s going on. It’s a rigged deal.” — remarks Tuesday.
THE FACTS: Trump has produced no evidence of widespread voting fraud by people in the country illegally or by any group of people.
He tried, but the commission he appointed on voting fraud collapsed from infighting and from the refusal of states to cooperate when tapped for reams of personal voter data, like names, partial Social Security numbers and voting histories. Studies have found only isolated cases of voter fraud in recent U.S. elections and no evidence that election results were affected. Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt found 31 cases of impersonation fraud, for example, in about 1 billion votes cast in elections from 2000 to 2014.
Trump has falsely claimed that 1 million fraudulent votes were cast in California and cited a Texas state government report that suggested 58,000 people in the country illegally may have cast a ballot at least once since 1996. But state elections officials subsequently acknowledged serious problems with the report, as tens of thousands on the list were actually U.S. citizens.
TRUMP: “We have the best stock market numbers we’ve ever had … Blue-collar workers went up proportionately more than anybody.” — Fox News interview Thursday.
THE FACTS: Wealthier Americans have largely benefited from the stock market gains, not blue-collar workers.
The problem with Trump claiming the stock market has helped working-class Americans is that the richest 10% of the country controls 84% of stock market value, according to a Federal Reserve survey. Because they hold more stocks, wealthier Americans have inherently benefited more from the 19% gain in the Standard & Poor’s index of 500 stocks so far this year. Only about half of U.S. families hold stocks, so plenty of people are getting little to no benefit from the stock market gains.
What Trump may be claiming with regard to the stock market is that working Americans are disproportionately benefiting in their 401(k) retirement savings.
Trump has said that 401(k) plans are up more than 50%. His data source is vague. But 401(k) balances have increased in large part due to routine contributions by workers and employers, not just stock market gains.
The Employee Benefit Research Institute shows that only one group of Americans has gotten an average annual 401(k) gain in excess of 50% during Trump’s presidency. These are workers age 25 to 34 who have fewer than five years at their current employer. At that age, the gains largely came from the regular contributions instead of the stock market. And the percentage gains look large because the account levels are relatively small.
TRUMP: “We have the best economy we’ve ever had.” — Fox News interview Thursday.
TRUMP: “We have the best economy in history.” — remarks Tuesday.
THE FACTS: No matter how often he repeats this claim, which is a lot, the economy is nowhere near the best in the country’s history.
In fact, in the late 1990s, growth topped 4% for four straight years, a level it has not reached on an annual basis under Trump. Growth reached 7.2% in 1984. The economy grew 2.9% in 2018 — the same pace it reached in 2015 under Obama — and simply hasn’t hit historically high growth rates.
The economy is now in its 121st month of growth, making it the longest expansion in history. Most of that took place under Obama.
TRUMP: “Most people working within U.S. ever!” — tweet Thursday.
TRUMP: “The most people working, almost 160 million, in the history of our country.” — remarks Tuesday.
THE FACTS: Yes, but that’s only because of population growth.
A more relevant measure is the proportion of Americans with jobs, and that is still far below record highs.
According to Labor Department data, 60.6% of people in the United States 16 years and older were working in June. That’s below the all-time high of 64.7% in April 2000, though higher than the 59.9% when Trump was inaugurated in January 2017.
TRUMP: “The best employment numbers in history.” — remarks Tuesday.
THE FACTS: They are not the best ever.
The 3.7% unemployment rate in the latest report is not a record low. It’s the lowest in 50 years. The rate was 3.5% in 1969 and 3.4% in 1968.
The U.S. also had lower rates than now in the early 1950s. And during three years of World War II, the annual rate was under 2%.
TRUMP, on his efforts to help veterans: “I got Choice.” — remarks Tuesday.
THE FACTS: He is not the president who “got” the Veterans Choice program, which gives veterans the option to see private doctors outside the Department of Veterans Affairs medical system at government expense.
Obama got it. Congress approved the program in 2014, and Obama signed it into law. Trump expanded it.
TRUMP: “We’re paying close to 100% on NATO.” — remarks Tuesday.
THE FACTS: The U.S. isn’t “paying close to 100%” of the price of protecting Europe.
NATO has a shared budget to which each member makes contributions based on the size of its economy. The United States, with the biggest economy, pays the biggest share, about 22%.
Four European members — Germany, France, Britain and Italy — combined pay nearly 44% of the total. The money, about $3 billion, runs NATO’s headquarters and covers certain other civilian and military costs.
Defending Europe involves far more than that fund. The primary cost of doing so would come from each member country’s military budget, as the alliance operates under a mutual defense treaty.
The U.S. is the largest military spender, but others in the alliance have armed forces, too. The notion that almost all costs would fall to the U.S. is false. In fact, NATO’s Article 5, calling for allies to act if one is attacked, has only been invoked once, and it was on behalf of the U.S., after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.