Fact-checking Donald Trump's tweetstorm about Mueller, Russia

President Donald Trump talks with reporters during a meeting in the Oval Office on March 15, 2018. (AP/Evan Vucci, File)
President Donald Trump talks with reporters during a meeting in the Oval Office on March 15, 2018. (AP/Evan Vucci, File)

Over the St. Patrick’s Day weekend, President Donald Trump went on a tweetstorm criticizing the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Here’s a look at where Trump had a point and where his tweets were either misleading or wrong.

"As the House Intelligence Committee has concluded, there was no collusion between Russia and the Trump Campaign. As many are now finding out, however, there was tremendous leaking, lying and corruption at the highest levels of the FBI, Justice & State. #DrainTheSwamp"

Even the House Intelligence Committee — which released a report generally considered favorable to Trump — did not quite say that. On March 12, Republican committee members announced that they had found no evidence that Trump campaign associates colluded with Russian officials during the 2016 election. The findings are part of a forthcoming 150-page draft report, which contained no input from Democrats.

Yet even the Republican who chaired the investigation, Texas Rep. Mike Conaway, didn’t go as far as Trump did. Conaway said on NBC’s Meet the Press that there was "no evidence of collusion." That phrasing is something short of a determination that there was definitely no collusion.

Conaway also acknowledged that Democrats on the committee feel differently on that question. Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on House Intelligence Committee, has said he believes there is "ample evidence" that the Trump campaign colluded with Russians.

As for Trump’s reference to "leaking, lying and corruption" at the FBI and the Justice Department, Trump is likely referring to ousted former FBI director James Comey and former deputy director Andrew McCabe.

Comey, who was fired by Trump on May 9, later testified that he made contemporaneous notes of conversations with the president that he strategically leaked to the media through a friend after his firing.

McCabe was fired shortly before his retirement after the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility reportedly recommended his dismissal. The FBI’s internal watchdog concluded that McCabe had authorized FBI officials to discuss the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, then misled investigators when asked about it. Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz is expected to release a report on McCabe’s conduct.

After his firing, McCabe said in a statement that he was being "singled out and treated this way because of the role I played, the actions I took, and the events I witnessed in the aftermath of the firing of James Comey."

It’s not entirely clear what Trump meant by his reference to the State Department.

"The Fake News is beside themselves that McCabe was caught, called out and fired. How many hundreds of thousands of dollars was given to wife’s campaign by Crooked H friend, Terry M, who was also under investigation? How many lies? How many leaks? Comey knew it all, and much more!"

Trump appears to be reviving a familiar line of attack he’s made against McCabe, concerning the intersection of his wife’s political activities and his role in the investigation into Clinton’s handling of sensitive emails. As we’ve noted in previous fact-checks, Trump has repeatedly been wrong on the details.

As a Virginia state candidate, Jill McCabe, a hospital physician, did receive donations linked to a longtime Clinton supporter, Terry McAuliffe, who was also the Democratic governor of Virginia.

But if Trump is insinuating these donations influenced Andrew McCabe’s approach to the Clinton email investigation — which Trump has previously suggested — he’s ignoring key facts in the timeline that undercut this assertion.

In October 2015, McAuliffe's PAC, Common Good VA, gave Dr. McCabe's campaign a total of $450,000. (An additional $17,500 had been given earlier.) The following month, McCabe lost her race. On Feb. 1, 2016 — three months after his wife's defeat — Andrew McCabe became the FBI's deputy director. In a statement to the Wall Street Journal, the FBI said it was the first time McCabe had any oversight role over the Clinton case.

Separately, Trump appears to be referring to reports that surfaced in May 2016 that the FBI was investigating McAuliffe’s campaign contributions, including $120,000 in donations from Chinese businessman Wang Wenliang through his U.S. companies.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller departs after a closed-door meeting with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on June 21, 2017, in the U.S. Capitol. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

"The Mueller probe should never have been started in that there was no collusion and there was no crime. It was based on fraudulent activities and a Fake Dossier paid for by Crooked Hillary and the DNC, and improperly used in FISA COURT for surveillance of my campaign. WITCH HUNT!"

Trump is wrong to say the investigation into his campaign’s ties with Russia started with a dossier compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele. Republican lawmakers have confirmed that George Papadopoulos, a former Trump campaign adviser who was told during the election that high-ranking Russian government officials in Moscow possessed "dirt" on Hillary Clinton in the form of "thousands of emails," triggered the probe.

While Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein hasn’t fully laid out his rationale for why he appointed Special Counsel Robert Mueller, some key facts leap out from the timeline leading up to his May 17, 2017, decision.

On March 2, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from any "existing or future investigations" related to the 2016 presidential election, after he failed to disclose during his confirmation proceedings that he’d met with Russian officials during the campaign.

On May 9, Trump fired Comey, and two days later said on national television that "this Russia thing" was part of his reasoning for sacking the FBI director.

Rosenstein appointed Mueller less than a week later.

To date, Mueller has filed charges against 19 people and three companies, and obtained guilty pleas from five people, including three who worked on Trump’s presidential campaign.

Finally, Trump is wrong to say the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court was misused in order to spy on his campaign.

Former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page left the campaign in Sept. 2016. It was nearly a month later when FBI and Justice Department officials obtained a warrant on Oct. 21 to monitor Page after convincing the court there was probable cause to believe Page was acting as an agent of Russia.

"Wow, watch Comey lie under oath to Senator G when asked ‘have you ever been an anonymous source...or known someone else to be an anonymous source...?’ He said strongly ‘never, no.’ He lied as shown clearly on @foxandfriends."

In this tweet, Trump is alleging that McCabe’s statement, issued after his firing, contradicts Comey’s sworn testimony during a May 3, 2017, hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.   

In an exchange with Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, Comey stated that he never authorized anyone at the FBI to be an anonymous source in news reports about the Trump or Clinton investigations.

Here’s their full exchange:

Grassley: "Director Comey, have you ever been an anonymous source in news reports about matters relating to the Trump investigation or the Clinton investigation?"

Comey: "Never."

Grassley: "Question two, 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: "No."

After his March 16 firing, McCabe issued a statement defending himself against allegations that he improperly permitted law enforcement officials to discuss the Clinton investigation with reporters, which referenced the FBI director, the position Comey held at the time.

"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," McCabe’s statement reads.

Here, McCabe states only that Comey was "aware of the interaction with the reporter" — not that Comey authorized it, which was what Grassley asked about.

"Spent very little time with Andrew McCabe, but he never took notes when he was with me. I don’t believe he made memos except to help his own agenda, probably at a later date. Same with lying James Comey. Can we call them Fake Memos?"

Just because McCabe may not have taken notes literally during a conversation with Trump doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be admissible in court. There is some flexibility in determining whether notes are "contemporaneous," and thus valid in court.

The federal rules of evidence bar many types of "hearsay" evidence -- essentially, statements made out of court and not under oath -- from being used in court. But there are exceptions to this rule, and the very first type of admissible evidence on the list is "present sense impression." The rules of evidence describe this as "a statement describing or explaining an event or condition, made while or immediately after the declarant perceived it."

The key phrase here is "immediately after." Additional commentary in the federal rules of evidence explains that "with respect to the time element, (the exception) recognizes that in many, if not most, instances precise contemporaneity is not possible, and hence a slight lapse is allowable."

If this case ever went to court, it would be up to a judge to decide whether any delay by McCabe in writing his notes was too long to classify as "immediately after." It’s premature to litigate this question, so for now, Trump has no basis for suggesting that McCabe’s notes are "fake."

"Why does the Mueller team have 13 hardened Democrats, some big Crooked Hillary supporters, and Zero Republicans? Another Dem recently added...does anyone think this is fair? And yet, there is NO COLLUSION!"

We have previously rated Mostly False a Trump assertion about Mueller’s team that "the people that have been hired are all Hillary Clinton supporters, some of them worked for Hillary Clinton."

In addition, the Washington Post reported that 13 members of Mueller’s team are registered Democrats: Greg Andres, Rush Atkinson, Ryan Dickey, Michael Dreeben, Kyle Freeny, Andrew Goldstein, Adam Jed, Elizabeth Prelogar, James Quarles, Jeannie Rhee, Brandon Van Grack, Andrew Weissmann, and Aaron Zelinsky.

Of these, eight have given donations exclusively to Democrats: Andres, Atkinson, Freeny, Goldstein, Prelogar, Rhee, Van Grack, and Weissmann. Six of them have donated to Clinton specifically, or to a Clinton-aligned fund. One other member of the team, Quarles, has given to both Democrats and Republicans.

However, Trump left out that four other members of the Mueller team are not registered with any political party.

In addition, federal regulations bar the Justice Department from considering political affiliation or political contributions as a factor in hiring career appointees, leaving Mueller no ability to factor that into his hiring decisions.