8 times the Mueller report shows Trump, White House spread false or misleading claims
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report provides a behind-the-scenes reconstruction of key events in the first months of Donald Trump’s presidency.
The redacted version of the report, released April 18 by Attorney General William Barr, verifies and supports media reports about events that Trump dismissed as "fake news." And it highlights several instances where Trump aides told the press false information, including about the firing of former FBI director James Comey.
Here’s an overview of some notable claims from Trump and his administration that turned out to be false.
Trump tweeted on July 29, 2018: "Is Robert Mueller ever going to release his conflicts of interest with respect to President Trump, including the fact that we had a very nasty & contentious business relationship, I turned him down to head the FBI (one day before appointment as S.C.) & Comey is his close friend."
Mueller’s report (p. 80, Volume 2) makes clear that Trump’s close aides told Trump there were no true conflicts of interests. Steve Bannon told Trump that one of his conflict of interest arguments — that Mueller disputed membership fees at Trump’s Virginia golf course — was "ridiculous and petty." Also, Mueller never went to the White House looking for a job, and the Justice Department cleared Mueller of ethical concerns preventing him from the special counsel role.
"As for Mueller's interview for FBI Director, Bannon recalled that the White House had invited Mueller to speak to the President to offer a perspective on the institution of the FBI. Bannon said that, although the White House thought about beseeching Mueller to become Director again, he did not come in looking for the job," Mueller’s report said.
"I haven’t given it any thought. I mean, I’ve been reading about it from you people. You say, ‘Oh, I’m going to dismiss him,’" Trump told reporters on Aug. 10, 2017. "No, I’m not dismissing anybody. I mean, I want them to get on with the task."
Mueller’s report (p. 82, volume 2) outlines instances when Trump consulted with multiple people about firing Mueller before his August remarks.
"On Monday, June 12, 2017, Christopher Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax Media and a longtime friend of the President's, met at the White House with (Reince) Priebus and Bannon. Ruddy recalled that they told him the President was strongly considering firing the Special Counsel and that he would do so precipitously, without vetting the decision through Administration officials. Ruddy asked Priebus if Ruddy could talk publicly about the discussion they had about the Special Counsel, and Priebus said he could."
Former White House counsel Don McGahn also told the special counsel’s office that Trump in June 2017 repeatedly pressed him about firing Mueller.
"In interviews with this Office, McGahn recalled that the President called him at home twice and on both occasions directed him to call (Deputy Attorney General Rod) Rosenstein and say that Mueller had conflicts that precluded him from serving as Special Counsel. On the first call, McGahn recalled that the President said something like, ‘You gotta do this. You gotta call Rod.’ McGahn said he told the President that he would see what he could do. McGahn was perturbed by the call and did not intend to act on the request," Mueller’s report said.
McGahn told the special counsel’s office that in a separate call, Trump "was more direct, saying something like, ‘Call Rod, tell Rod that Mueller has conflicts and can't be the Special Counsel.’ McGahn recalled the President telling him ‘Mueller has to go’ and ‘Call me back when you do it.’"
Around that time, Trump also asked former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie about firing Mueller.
The report said Trump repeatedly tried to get McGahn to deny media stories that said Trump wanted to fire Mueller: "Those denials are contrary to the evidence and suggest the President's awareness that the direction to McGahn could be seen as improper."
Trump fired Comey on May 9, 2017. In a May 10, 2017 press briefing, Sanders justified Comey’s firing by saying that Trump, the Department of Justice, bipartisan members of Congress, "and most importantly, the rank and file of the FBI had lost confidence in their director."
A reporter pushed back by saying that an FBI special agent said that the vast majority of the bureau favored Comey and disagreed with her contention that they lost faith in him.
"Look, we've heard from countless members of the FBI that say very different things," Sanders said.
Sanders told the Special Counsel’s Office (p. 72, volume 2) that her comment was a "slip of the tongue."
"She also recalled," the report said, "that her statement in a separate press interview that rank-and-file FBI agents had lost confidence in Corney was a comment she made ‘in the heat of the moment’ that was not founded on anything."
Mueller’s report indicates that the White House misrepresented the Justice Department’s role in Comey’s firing.
Trump in his May 9, 2017, letter firing Comey said the dismissal came at the recommendation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Rosenstein, and Trump agreed with their judgment. Trump’s letter included a separate letter from Sessions, a memo from Rosenstein, and a White House press release that said "Trump acted based on the clear recommendations" of Sessions and Rosenstein.
Reporters at a May 10, 2017, press briefing asked Sanders if Rosenstein "decided on his own" to review Comey’s performance.
"Absolutely," Sanders said.
She also said, "(Trump) asked them for their recommendation, based on the conversation that they had on Monday. He asked them to put that recommendation in writing. But they came to him on his own. And again, the president had lost confidence in Comey from the day he was elected."
According to Mueller’s report (p. 72, volume 2), Sessions and Rosenstein told McGahn they were concerned about this narrative that Rosenstein initiated the effort to fire Comey: "The White House Counsel's Office agreed that it was factually wrong to say that the Department of Justice had initiated Corney's termination, and McGahn asked attorneys in the White House Counsel's Office to work with the press office to correct the narrative."
The New York Times in July 2017 reported on a Trump Tower meeting of Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, and a Kremlin-linked Russian lawyer who offered derogatory information about Hillary Clinton. In a statement to the newspaper, Trump. Jr. said the meeting "primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children." (Full statement here.)
A reporter at an Aug. 1, 2017, press briefing asked Sanders whether President Trump tried to change the narrative about the meeting.
"Look, the statement that Don Jr. issued is true. There’s no inaccuracy in the statement. The president weighed in as any father would, based on the limited information that he had. This is all discussion, frankly, of no consequence. There was no follow-up. It was disclosed to the proper parties, which is how the New York Times found out about it to begin with," Sanders said.
Another reporter asked her to clarify the degree to which Trump weighed in.
"He certainly didn’t dictate, but he — like I said, he weighed in, offered suggestion like any father would do," Sanders said.
Several months after Sanders’s press statement, Trump’s personal counsel privately 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.," said Mueller’s report (p. 98, volume 2).
(Trump Jr. made minor additions to the statement Trump dictated and added the word "primarily" to the sentence about what was discussed at the meeting.)
Trump had "substantial involvement" in the communications strategy, the report said, describing how on a July 2017 flight from a G-20 summit, then-White House aide Hope Hicks "obtained a draft statement" about the meeting to be released by Trump Jr. and brought it to Trump. The draft began with a reference to the information offered by the Russians in setting up the meeting.
"Hicks again wanted to disclose the entire story," Mueller’s report said. "But the President directed that the statement not be issued because it said too much."
Mueller’s report makes clear that Trump’s claims about the starting date and the triggering event for the investigation are false.
Trump claimed the Steele dossier "was responsible for starting" Mueller’s investigation into links between the Trump campaign and Russia. And as recently as March, Trump said his political opponents launched the Russia probe as revenge for losing the 2016 election.
The Mueller report confirms it was the actions of Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos that triggered the investigation in July 2016.
Mueller’s report corroborates previous reporting in the New York Times about the sequence of events that set the probe in motion. Papadopoulos told a high-ranking Australian diplomat at an upscale London bar in May 2016 that Moscow had "political dirt" on Hillary Clinton in the form of thousands of emails. (The Mueller report does not identify Australia, however.)
In late July — days after WikiLeaks’ dumped thousands of internal Democratic National Committee documents that proved damaging to Clinton — U.S. law enforcement became aware of Papadopoulos’ claim.
"Within a week of the (WikiLeaks) release, a foreign government informed the FBI about its May 2016 interaction with Papadopoulos and his statement that the Russian government could assist the Trump Campaign," said Mueller’s report (p. 6, volume 1). "On July 31, 2016, based on the foreign government reporting, the FBI opened an investigation into potential coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the Trump campaign."
The dossier compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele was used, to some extent, to persuade a U.S. foreign intelligence court to authorize surveillance of former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. But that wasn’t until October 2016 — several months after Papadopoulos’ actions started the investigation.
These events took place prior to the November vote, contradicting Trump’s claim that Democrats launched the probe to avenge their election loss.
During the 2016 presidential campaign and after his election, Trump said he had no business involvement in Russia.
During a presidential debate with Clinton, Trump said: "I know nothing about the inner workings of Russia. I don't deal there. I have no businesses there." After the election, in January 2017, Trump said he had "no deals that could happen in Russia, because we’ve stayed away."
Mueller’s report (p. 134, volume 2) outlines efforts led by Michael Cohen, then-executive vice president of the Trump Organization and Trump’s lawyer, from September 2015 until at least June 2016 for a Trump Tower in Moscow. The plan was to have a Russian corporation build a tower in Moscow that licensed the Trump name and brand.
Cohen told investigators that Trump wanted Trump Tower Moscow development updates, on several occasions asked Cohen what was happening on it, and Cohen was not told to abandon the project.
"During the summer of 2016, Cohen recalled that candidate Trump publicly claimed that he had nothing to do with Russia and then shortly afterwards privately checked with Cohen about the status of the Trump Tower Moscow project, which Cohen found ‘interesting’," the report said.
Cohen that summer told Trump the project was going nowhere and Trump said that was "too bad," according to the report, "Cohen did not recall talking with Trump about the project after that."
Trump and Comey dined together at the White House on Jan. 27, 2017. Who invited whom?
"That dinner was arranged," Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt in a May 11, 2017, interview. "I think he asked for the dinner. And he wanted to stay on as the FBI head. And I said I'll, you know, consider. We'll see what happens."
Mueller’s report (p. 33, volume 2) said it was Trump who called Comey and invited him to dinner. The report addresses the disagreement over whose idea it was to get together.
"But substantial evidence corroborates Comey's account of the dinner invitation," the report said, adding that the President's Daily Diary confirms that Trump "extend[ed] a dinner invitation" to Comey on January 27."
A footnote in the report also said that two witnesses — Priebus and then-FBI Chief of Staff James Rybicki — corroborated Comey's account that it was Trump who "reached out to schedule the dinner, without Comey having asked for it."