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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Explaining Trump’s Russia Tweets

President Donald Trump went on a tweetstorm about the Russia investigation. He accused his vanquished rival Hillary Clinton of obstruction of justice (without any evidence) and blamed others for his firing of FBI Director James Comey (even though Trump said he was planning to fire Comey regardless of any recommendation).

Here we will explain — and in some cases debunk — some of Trump’s tweets.

Clinton’s Emails, Again

The president dusted off his campaign stump speech to accuse Clinton of obstructing justice during the FBI investigation of her use of a personal email account and server to conduct government business while she was secretary of state.

The tweet came a day after the Washington Post reported that Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel heading the Russia investigation, has widened his inquiry to include “an examination of whether President Trump attempted to obstruct justice.”

There is no evidence of obstruction of justice in any of the three instances cited by Trump.

First, let’s look at his remark that Clinton “bleached” her emails.

In December 2014, Clinton gave the State Department 30,490 work-related emails that she sent or received while secretary of state. There were another 30,000 emails or so that were deemed personal by Clinton. Those were not turned over to the department.

An outside contractor for Platte River Networks wiped Clinton’s computer hard drive of all emails sometime between March 25 and March 31, 2015, according to the FBI. PRN used a free software program called BleachBit to delete the emails. That’s what Trump means when he says the emails were “bleached.” (Other times he has said that Clinton “used chemicals” to “acid wash or bleach” her emails. See our story, “Trump, Pence ‘Acid Wash’ Facts.”)

During the campaign, Trump accused Clinton of destroying work-related emails that should have been turned over to the State Department. His tweet makes the same insinuation. But FBI investigators found no evidence of obstruction.

During its investigation, the FBI recovered nearly 15,000 deleted emails that were not part of the 30,490 work-related emails that Clinton gave to the department. About 5,600 of the 15,000 emails that were forensically recovered by the FBI were work-related, but a “substantial number” of them were near duplicates of emails that were already released to the public.

More important, Comey said the FBI “found no evidence that any of the additional work-related emails were intentionally deleted in an effort to conceal them.” At his July 5, 2016, press conference, where he announced that he would recommend no charges against Clinton, Comey said “like many e-mail users, Secretary Clinton periodically deleted e-mails or e-mails were purged from the system when devices were changed.”

The department’s policy allows its employees to determine which emails are work-related and must be preserved. “Messages that are not records may be deleted when no longer needed,” according to the State Department’s Foreign Affairs Manual.

Clinton also did not personally destroy any of her phones. A Clinton aide told the FBI (on page 9 of the FBI notes of its investigation) that he destroyed two of Clinton’s mobile phones by breaking them in half or hitting them with a hammer. But there’s no evidence that she directed him to do it, or that there was anything nefarious in doing so.

Clinton did not have State Department-issued mobile devices, but if she did the department would have required the destruction of data, according to the technology website Wired.

The technology website Wired said “if Clinton had been using State-issued devices, they would have gone through a similar, if more standardized, process of data deletion.”

Wired, Sept. 7, 2016: A State Department official explained in a statement to WIRED that “department security policies mandate that all electronic devices are cleared of sensitive or classified information prior to reuse or disposal.” Some devices are wiped and reused, in other words, while others are destroyed as part of the recycling process.

There is also no evidence that Clinton directed her husband, former President Bill Clinton, to meet with then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch to squash the email investigation. And, even if Clinton did make such an attempt, Lynch was ultimately not involved in the final decision on Clinton.

Here’s what happened: The former president met with Lynch on June 27, 2016, on the tarmac at the Phoenix airport when the two crossed paths. They claimed to have talked about personal matters and denied talking about the FBI investigation.

Of course, we don’t know what they talked about. But here’s the thing: Lynch shortly after admitted that the meeting “cast a shadow” over the FBI investigation and decided that she would accept the FBI recommendation on Clinton, regardless of whether the agency decided to bring charges against Clinton or not.

Comey went one step further. He did not coordinate his July 5, 2016, press conference with anyone at the Department of Justice. “I have not coordinated or reviewed this statement in any way with the Department of Justice or any other part of the government,” Comey said at the start of last year’s press conference. “They do not know what I am about to say.”

In a strange twist, Comey’s decision to entirely cut out the Justice Department was a reason that the Trump administration initially gave for firing Comey.

“The Director was wrong to usurp the Attorney General’s authority on July 5, 2016, and announce his conclusion that the case should be closed without prosecution,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein wrote in a May 9 memo that the administration initially cited as the reason for Comey’s firing. “It is not the function of the Director to make such an announcement.”

The firing of Comey brings us to another Trump tweet.

Who Fired Comey?

Trump is reportedly talking about Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who wrote the May 9 memo about Comey’s job performance. In announcing Trump’s decision to fire Comey, the White House released a statement that said the president acted “based on the clear recommendations” of Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

But, two days later, Trump said in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt that he would have fired Comey with or without a recommendation.

“He made a recommendation, but regardless of recommendation I was going to fire Comey, knowing there was no good time to do it,” Trump said. “And, in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.’”

Trump’s admission that he was thinking about “this Russia thing” when he fired Comey is one of the reasons that Trump now faces an obstruction of justice investigation. (Also, the former FBI director testified earlier this month that prior to being fired, Trump asked for his loyalty and suggested he drop the FBI investigation of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.)

It’s true that Rosenstein appointed Mueller to take over the FBI’s investigation of the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and whether Trump campaign associates were involved in those efforts. And, as we said, Mueller is now reportedly investigating Trump for impeding that investigation.

But, by his own admission, Trump has said he would have fired Comey regardless of any recommendation.

‘Very Bad and Conflicted People’

As for the special counsel’s investigation, Trump criticized some of those involved as “very bad and conflicted people.”

This is his opinion, and he is entitled to it, so what we will do here is merely provide some information on the people he is singling out as bad and conflicted.

Trump supporters in recent days have criticized some of the lawyers hired by Mueller to help him with the investigation. Mueller has hired 13 lawyers. At least three of them have donated to Democrats, as reported by CNN, and one of the three once represented the Clinton Foundation.

Here they are:

  • Jeannie Rhee. She was a partner with Mueller at WilmerHale. Prior to joining WilmerHale in 2006, Rhee was a former assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, working under an appointee of President George W. Bush. She left the firm in 2009 to become a deputy assistant attorney general under President Barack Obama, rejoining the firm again in 2011. While at WilmerHale, Rhee and Jamie Gorelick represented the Clinton Foundation in 2015 in a lawsuit that claimed the Clinton Foundation operated as a racketeering enterprise shaking down donors in exchange for official favors. The lawsuit was dismissed. Gorelick now represents Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Rhee has contributed $16,450 to Democratic causes since 2004, including $5,400 to Clinton’s 2016 campaign, according to CNN.
  • Andrew Weissmann. A longtime Department of Justice official, Weissmann took a leave of absence from his job as the department’s chief of the criminal division’s fraud section to join Mueller’s team. Weissmann and Mueller have a long working relationship at the department and FBI. Under Mueller’s direction, Weissmann headed the department’s Enron Task Force from 2002 through 2005, and he was the FBI general counsel from 2011 to 2013. When Weissmann was appointed to head the fraud unit in 2015, a Justice Department press release said he “has dedicated the majority of his 30-year professional career to public service and the Department of Justice.” Since 2006, Weissmann has given $4,300 to Democrats, according to CNN.
  • James L. Quarles III. He was a partner with Mueller at WilmerHale. He joined the firm in 1975, and prior to that he served as an assistant special prosecutor on the Watergate Special Prosecution Force from 1973 to 1975. He has donated $32,800 to Democrats and $2,750 to Republicans, according to CNN.

Mueller reports to Rosenstein, so if there is a conflict of interest — as Trump suggests — the president’s deputy attorney general could intervene.

At a June 13 hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Lindsey Graham asked Rosenstein if giving donations would be a reason to disqualify a lawyer from serving on the Russia case. “No, senator, it is not a disqualification,” Rosenstein said.

The senator went on to ask if anyone representing Clinton in the past should be disqualified. “It would depend on the facts and the circumstances,” Rosenstein said. “As a general matter, I think the answer is no.”

Trump appears to have a different opinion. We leave it to readers to decide if the donations and work histories of three lawyers hired by Mueller make them “very bad and conflicted people.”

Mark Shtrakhman contributed to this story.