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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump’s Lawyer Spins Russia Facts

Jay Sekulow, an attorney on President Donald Trump’s legal team, made the rounds of the Sunday shows to talk about the Russia investigation. But he glossed over relevant facts in defense of his client:

  • Sekulow repeatedly said Trump fired FBI Director James Comey after “a deliberative process” and based on the advice of his top Justice Department officials. But Trump has said “regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey.”
  • Several times Sekulow said that he wanted to be “very clear” that “the president is not under investigation.” But Sekulow acknowledged to Fox News’ Chris Wallace that he does not know that for a fact. “I can’t read the minds of the special prosecutor,” he said.
  • Sekulow claimed Trump “has not said anything about Robert Mueller,” the special counsel investigating Russia’s attempt to influence the 2016 presidential election. In fact, Trump criticized Mueller’s hand-picked legal team as “very bad and conflicted people.”

Recommendations to Fire Comey

The president’s lawyer appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union,” CBS’ “Face the Nation,” NBC’s “Meet the Press” and “Fox News Sunday.” On each show, Sekulow returned to the earlier White House position that Trump acted to fire the FBI director on May 9 based on recommendations of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

Sekulow said the firing was the result of a “very thorough process.”

Sekulow, on CNN: In this particular case, you had a scenario where the president, receiving advice from a variety of his government officials, was told by his — his attorney general, vice deputy attorney general, that James Comey should not be leading the FBI. It’s ironic that based on the action that they recommended that he took, in consultation with others, that he’s now being investigated by the agency that told him to take that very action — removing the FBI director.

Sekulow, on NBC: There’s a collaborative and discussion — very thorough process. In fact, I’m holding in my hand the letter that was sent from the attorney general of the United States with the memorandum from the deputy attorney general of the United States regarding the situation involving former FBI Director Comey. And in that recommendation is a recommendation for removal.

But the president has said he was going to fire Comey regardless of any recommendation. Trump also said he was thinking of “this Russia thing” when he decided to fire Comey.

“[Rosenstein] made a recommendation, but regardless of recommendation I was going to fire Comey, knowing there was no good time to do it,” Trump said in a May 11 interview with NBC’s Lester Holt. “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.’”

Rosenstein has said he wrote his memo after he was told that Trump planned to fire Comey.

In closed sessions last month with members of the House and Senate intelligence committees, Rosenstein said he was told May 8 that Trump wanted to fire Comey. He said he agreed with the decision and then set out to write a memo outlining his concerns about Comey’s leadership, according to a statement released by the Department of Justice.

Rosenstein, May 19: On May 8, I learned that President Trump intended to remove Director Comey and sought my advice and input. Notwithstanding my personal affection for Director Comey, I thought it was appropriate to seek a new leader.

I wrote a brief memorandum to the Attorney General summarizing my longstanding concerns about Director Comey’s public statements concerning the Secretary Clinton email investigation.

The deputy attorney general also told the members of Congress that the memo was not intended to be made public and it was “not a statement of reasons to justify a for-cause termination.”

“It is a candid internal memorandum about the FBI Director’s public statements concerning a high-profile criminal investigation,” Rosenstein said.

Sekulow described the steps leading up to Comey’s firing as a “very thorough process.” That’s a subjective statement. But here’s what we know about the events leading up to the firing that may shed some light on the process:

Shortly before the Jan. 20 inauguration, Trump called Comey, according to the former FBI director, and, among other things, reassured him for a second time that he could stay on as FBI director. “[D]uring that call, he asked me again, ‘Hope you’re going to stay, you’re doing a great job,'” Comey told the Senate intelligence committee at a June 8 hearing.

On Jan. 22, Trump singled out Comey during a White House reception for law enforcement and gave the FBI director a hug. “When — you’ve seen the picture of me walking across the Blue Room. And what the president whispered in my ear was, ‘I really look forward to working with you,'” Comey said at the June 8 Senate hearing.

On Jan. 27, Trump and Comey had dinner at the White House. “The President began by asking me whether I wanted to stay on as FBI Director, which I found strange because he had already told me twice in earlier conversations that he hoped I would stay, and I had assured him that I intended to,” Comey said in written testimony for his June hearing.

Comey has said that Trump asked for his loyalty at that dinner — a claim that the president has denied. During his June 8 testimony, Comey said he believes that the president sought to extract a promise of loyalty in exchange for keeping his job as FBI director.

“I could always be wrong. But my common sense told me that what was going on is either he had concluded, or someone had told him, that you didn’t — you’ve already asked Comey to stay, and you didn’t get anything for it, and that the dinner was an effort to build a relationship — in fact, he asked specifically — of loyalty in the context of asking me to stay,” Comey testified. “And, as I said, what was odd about that is we’d already talked twice about it by that point.”

Sessions took office Feb. 9. Prior to his confirmation, Sessions and Rosenstein had already discussed replacing Comey. “Among the concerns that I recall were to restore the credibility of the FBI, respect the established authority of the Department of Justice, limit public statements and eliminate leaks,” Rosenstein said.

Despite those concerns, Sessions testified on June 13 that he never talked to Comey about his job performance or morale at the FBI prior to firing him.

Comey testified that on Feb. 14 Trump asked him to drop the FBI investigation of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn — another claim that has been denied by the president.

On March 30 and April 11, Trump called Comey and asked him to help “lift the cloud” of the Russia investigation by publicly stating that the FBI was not investigating the president personally, according to Comey’s testimony. Comey did not make any such public statement, and, in fact, the FBI director declined to answer at a Senate judiciary committee hearing on May 3 if Trump was under investigation. Comey said the agency will “follow the evidence wherever it takes us.”

Five days later, Trump informed Rosenstein that he would fire Comey. The FBI director was fired on May 9, without any advance notice, while he was speaking to agents at an FBI field office in Florida.

Trump Under Investigation?

Sekulow was pressed on each show to explain a June 16 tweet in which the president seemingly acknowledged that he was under investigation for obstruction of justice.

On all four shows, Sekulow denied the president is under investigation. He said the tweet was only a reference to a June 14 Washington Post story that said 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.” Sekulow described the Post report as a “fake report.”

Sekulow told CNN: “So there can be no confusion. No confusion. The president is not under investigation.” He told NBC: “But let me be very clear here, as it has been since the beginning, the president is not and has not been under investigation for obstruction.” And he told CBS: “And I want to be very clear about this, the president is not and has not been under investigation.”

On NBC, Sekulow even cited Comey as a source. “But the president, as James Comey said in his testimony and we know as of today, the president has not been and is not under investigation.” (Comey did on three occasions tell the president that he wasn’t under investigation, although that was before Comey was fired.)

But on “Fox News Sunday,” under questioning from host Chris Wallace, Sekulow admitted what he did not on the other three shows: He doesn’t really know for a fact if the president is under investigation for obstruction of justice or not.

Wallace, June 18: Well, you don’t know that he’s not under investigation again, sir. I mean you might —

Sekulow: You know, I can’t read the mind — you’re right, Chris, I can’t read the minds of the special prosecutor.

Wallace: Well, then, good, OK, so we’re in agreement, you don’t know whether he’s under — you don’t know whether he’s under investigation.

Sekulow: But I have not been notified. No one has been notified that he is.

We don’t know if Trump is under investigation or not. But, as of June 18, neither did Sekulow, despite repeatedly saying otherwise.

Trump on Mueller

In recent days, Trump supporters have criticized Mueller, suggesting that the special counsel cannot be impartial for a host of reasons. Wallace asked Sekulow on “Fox News Sunday” about Trump’s thoughts regarding Mueller.

Wallace, June 18: Does he think that Robert Mueller has done anything wrong?

Sekulow: First of all, he has not said anything about Robert Mueller.

That’s not entirely accurate. Trump has criticized the Russia investigation as a “witch hunt” and accused some of those involved as “very bad and conflicted people.” Of course, Mueller as special counsel hired those people to work on the investigation.

As we have written, it is true that three of the 13 lawyers hired by Mueller to help with the Russia investigation have donated to Democratic candidates and causes — including one lawyer, Jeannie Rhee, who donated to losing Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. Rhee, who worked with Mueller at the law firm WilmerHale, also represented the Clinton Foundation in 2015 in a lawsuit against the Clinton Foundation. The lawsuit was dismissed.

(Coincidentally, Rhee worked on the Clinton Foundation case with another WilmerHale attorney, Jamie Gorelick, who now represents Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.)

Trump has every right to express his opinion about the investigation and people leading it. But, in doing so, he is criticizing Mueller, despite what Sekulow says.