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Amid accusations that President Donald Trump may have obstructed justice, conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh said President Barack Obama did the exact same thing.
The New York Times and others have reported that back in February, Trump took FBI director James Comey aside and asked him to scale back the FBI’s investigation into former White House National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and payments he received from foreign countries. Trump fired Comey several weeks later.
Limbaugh said Obama took similar action during the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her time as secretary of state. Other conservative outlets have mirrored this point.
"What Trump is alleged to have done is actually no different than what Barack Obama did in April last year when he made it known that he didn’t want Hillary prosecuted," Limbaugh said on his show May 17. "In fact, the Obama situation is actually worse."
We reached out to Limbaugh but did not hear back.
Limbaugh is likely referring to an interview Obama gave to Fox News Sunday’s Chris Wallace in April 2016. During the interview, Obama briefly discussed the ongoing FBI probe into Clinton’s email use.
Here is the key exchange between Obama and Wallace (read the full transcript here):
Wallace: "Can you still say flatly that she did not jeopardize America’s secrets?"
Obama: "I’ve got to be careful because, as you know, there have been investigations, there are hearings, Congress is looking at this. And I haven’t been sorting through each and every aspect of this.
"Here’s what I know: Hillary Clinton was an outstanding secretary of state. She would never intentionally put America in any kind of jeopardy. …
"I continue to believe that she has not jeopardized America’s national security. Now what I’ve also said is that — and she has acknowledged — that there’s a carelessness, in terms of managing emails, that she has owned, and she recognizes.
"But I also think it is important to keep this in perspective. This is somebody who has served her country for four years as secretary of state, and did an outstanding job. And no one has suggested that in some ways, as a consequence of how she’s handled emails, that that detracted from her excellent ability to carry out her duties."
This interview and Trump’s private conversation with Comey are not the same.
Obama, speaking in a public setting, said he believed Clinton "has not jeopardized America’s national security." But he never said outright that the FBI should end its investigation, nor did he say Clinton was innocent. In fact, Obama acknowledged the ongoing FBI investigation.
In contrast, reports by the New York Times and others say Trump told the director of the FBI, explicitly and directly, what he hoped he would do regarding an ongoing investigation.
According to the reports about Comey’s memo of the private White House conversation with Trump, Trump said, "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go."
For the record, the White House denies the reports.
There are clear differences between the situations.
"Obama was speaking to the press and expressing his confidence in the integrity of Secretary Clinton, which is not the same thing as asking the director of the FBI not to pursue an investigation," said Rebecca Lonergan, a University of Southern California law professor and former public corruption prosecutor.
A reasonable person could critique Obama for offering his opinion on an ongoing investigation instead of saying "no comment." Indeed, some legal commentators and conservative pundits accused Obama at the time of subtly putting his thumb on the scale.
But legal scholars’ reaction to Trump’s reported actions has been much more robust. Trump’s private meeting with Comey, coupled with Trump’s decision to fire him, raises legitimate questions of impropriety.
Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and white collar crime expert, said he isn’t convinced that Trump’s actions count as obstruction of justice.
But Obama’s remarks — delivered in a public setting without addressing a particular agent, witness or other involved party — are much less significant, he said.
"The difference between them is (that Trump’s actions are) probably enough to initiate an investigation," Henning said.
Limbaugh’s assertion misses another obvious point: Trump has gone beyond what Obama said about Clinton’s ongoing investigation. Trump has repeatedly defended Flynn in media interviews and on Twitter, without expressing caution about ongoing probes.
"Mike Flynn should ask for immunity in that this is a witch hunt (excuse for big election loss), by media & Dems, of historic proportion!" he tweeted March 31.
"Mike Flynn is a fine person, and I asked for his resignation," he said in a Feb. 16 press conference. "He respectfully gave it. He is a man who there was a certain amount of information given to Vice President Pence, who is with us today. And I was not happy with the way that information was given. He didn't have to do that because what he did wasn't wrong."
Limbaugh said, "What Trump is alleged to have done is actually no different than what Barack Obama did in April last year when he made it known that he didn’t want Hillary prosecuted."
Obama did say that he didn’t believe Clinton harmed national security amid an ongoing FBI investigation into her email setup. But he never said she was innocent of all crimes, nor did he say the FBI should drop its investigation. And he made these remarks in an on-camera news interview, during which he made a point to distance himself from the investigation.
Trump’s situation is different: In a secret, one-on-one conversation, Trump explicitly told Comey that he hoped the FBI would back off from its Flynn investigation, according to reports. It may not have been an order, nor a clear example of obstruction of justice, but the exchange raises red flags.
Limbaugh’s statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression, so we rate it Mostly False.
Rush Limbaugh show, "Obama Actually Did What Trump Is Accused of Doing," May 17, 2017
New York Times, "Comey Memo Says Trump Asked Him to End Flynn Investigation," May 16, 2017
PolitiFact, "Obstruction of justice, presidential immunity, impeachment: What you need to know," May 17, 2017
Fox News, "Exclusive: President Barack Obama on Fox News Sunday," April 10, 2016
National Review, "Under the Obama Precedent, No Trump Obstruction of Justice," May 17, 2017
Email interview, USC law professor Rebecca Lonergan, May 17, 2017
Phone interview, Wayne State law professor Peter Henning, May 17, 2017
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