A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

FactChecking Trump’s Tweetstorm

After FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe was fired, the president made several false and misleading claims about the Russia investigation in a series of tweets.


Summary

President Donald Trump responded to the firing of FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe with a flurry of tweets that contained numerous false, misleading or unsubstantiated claims about the Russia investigation led by Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III:

  • Trump said the “Mueller probe should never have been started” because there was “no collusion” and “no crime.” Mueller took over the investigation about 11 months after it started. He has made no allegations of collusion to date, but he has found evidence of crimes contained in five guilty pleas and two indictments.
  • Trump claimed that the “Mueller probe” was “based on … a Fake Dossier” paid for by the Democrats, referring to opposition research conducted by former British spy Christopher Steele. However, the probe started after an Australian diplomat informed the FBI that a Trump foreign policy adviser told him that the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.
  • Trump also claimed that the FBI and Department of Justice “improperly used” the Steele dossier “in FISA Court for surveillance of my campaign.” The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court did not approve spying on the Trump campaign, but rather on a former aide who already had left the campaign.
  • The president claimed that the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence concluded “there was no collusion between Russia and the Trump Campaign.” But one of the Republican leaders of the investigation said the committee didn’t make that conclusion — instead it found “no evidence of collusion.”
  • Trump tweeted that McCabe’s wife’s campaign received “hundreds of thousands of dollars” from former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, “who was also under investigation.” But the FBI was reportedly looking at McAuliffe’s personal finances and donations to his gubernatorial campaign, not contributions his political action committee made to Dr. Jill McCabe.
  • Trump claimed former FBI Director James Comey lied to Congress, but Trump misquoted Comey. Trump said Comey under oath denied having “known someone else to be an anonymous source.” Comey was actually asked whether he had “authorized” any leaks, and Comey said he had not.
  • Trump suggested Mueller’s team was biased, saying it included “13 hardened Democrats” and “some big” supporters of Clinton. Thirteen of the 17 team members are registered Democrats; five donated to Clinton’s 2016 campaign. It’s worth noting that Mueller is a Republican who was selected special counsel by a Trump appointee.
Analysis

The president made his claims on Twitter from March 16, the day McCabe was fired, through March 18.

Origins of ‘Mueller Probe’

On March 17, Trump made several false and unsubstantiated statements in one tweet about the origin of the special counsel’s investigation.

“The Mueller probe should never have been started in that there was no collusion and there was no crime,” Trump tweeted. “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!”

There is a lot of unpack here, but let’s start with the facts as we know them.

The FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation on July 31, 2016, based on information it received from an Australian diplomat who met in May 2016 with Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, as reported by the New York Times in December 2017 and subsequently confirmed in publicly released court and congressional documents.

In pleading guilty on Oct. 5, 2017, to providing false statements to the FBI, Papadopoulos acknowledged that a professor with Russian ties told him on April 26, 2016, that the Russian government had “dirt” on Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails.” The next month, Papadopoulos told Australia’s high commissioner to the United Kingdom, Alexander Downer, about the Russian “dirt” on Clinton. Downer subsequently passed on that information to the U.S. in late July 2016, when hacked Democratic emails began appearing online, the Times story reported. 

In a redacted memo approved last month for release by the Trump White House, the Democratic staff of the House intelligence committee confirmed that “the FBI initiated its counterintelligence investigation on July 31, 2016” based on Papadopoulos’ disclosure of the existence of the hacked emails to an unnamed individual, who was identified by the Times as the Australian diplomat. (Trump initially blocked the release of the Democratic memo on Feb. 9, before he agreed to release a redacted version on Feb. 24.)

On Oct. 21, 2016, the FBI and Department of Justice sought and received Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court approval to secretly monitor the communications of Carter Page, a former Trump foreign policy adviser, according to a memo, released Feb. 2, by the Republican staff of the House intelligence committee. A month earlier in September, Page had taken a leave of absence from the campaign.  

Mueller assumed oversight of the investigation on May 17, 2017 — 11 months after it started in late July 2016. He was appointed special counsel by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, a Trump appointee, just six days after Trump admitted in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt that he was thinking of “this Russia thing” when he decided to fire FBI Director James Comey. 

Now, let’s look at the statements that Trump made in his tweet.

Trump said the “Mueller probe should never have been started” because there was “no collusion” and “no crime.”

Contrary to Trump’s claim, Mueller’s probe has found evidence of criminal activity.

On Feb. 16, the special counsel’s office charged three Russian organizations and 13 Russian nationals with illegal campaign activities and conspiring to defraud the United States. The conspiracy involved using the names of U.S. citizens and companies to illegally buy political ads on social media and stage political rallies. Some defendants also “solicited and compensated real U.S. persons to promote or disparage candidates,” according to the indictment.

In addition, the special counsel’s office has obtained five guilty pleas (including from three Trump campaign aides) and has indicted Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort.

None of the indictments or guilty pleas allege that there was any collusion between Trump’s campaign and the Russians. But Mueller’s investigation continues, so the question of collusion remains an open issue.

Trump said the “Mueller probe” was “based on … a Fake Dossier” paid for by the Democrats, referring to opposition research of former British spy Christopher Steele. But, as we explained earlier, the probe started after an Australian diplomat informed the FBI in late July 2016 that Papadopoulos told him that the Russians had “dirt” on Clinton.

GPS Fusion, a research firm founded by former Wall Street Journal reporters Glenn R. Simpson and Peter Fritsch, hired Steele in May or June 2016 to investigate Trump’s business activities in Russia, Simpson told congressional investigators.

Steele submitted his first report to GPS Fusion on June 20, 2016, and two weeks later, on July 5 he met with FBI officials in London to brief them on his initial findings, according to a transcript of Simpson’s testimony. But the Democratic memo said: “Steele’s reporting did not reach the counterintelligence team investigating Russia at FBI headquarters until mid-September 2016, more than seven weeks after the FBI opened its investigation.”

The Republican intelligence committee memo quoted the head of the FBI’s counterintelligence division as saying that “the Steele dossier was in its ‘infancy’ at the time of the initial Page FISA application” in October of 2016.

Trump claimed that the FBI and DOJ “improperly used” the Steele dossier “in FISA Court for surveillance of my campaign.” The FISA court did not approve surveillance of the Trump campaign; Page had taken a leave of absence from the Trump campaign a month before the FISA court gave its approval.

Trump claimed the DOJ and FBI “improperly used” the Steele dossier to obtain the surveillance court order. This is a main issue of disagreement between the memos issued by the Republican and Democratic staffs on the House intelligence committee. The facts, though, show that the FISA application didn’t rely solely on Steele’s report.

The memos also agree that the FBI “sought and received a FISA probable cause order … authorizing electronic surveillance on Carter Page” on Oct. 21, 2016, as the Republican memo says. And they agree that there were three subsequent renewals of the initial surveillance request and “each renewal requires a separate finding of probable cause,” as the GOP memo says.

But the Republican memo accuses the FBI and DOJ of omitting “material and relevant information” that was “potentially favorable” to Page on all four occasions. The FBI disagrees with that assessment, accusing the Republican memo of distorting the facts.

In a statement issued two days before the Republican memo was released, the FBI said: “As expressed during our initial review, we have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”

‘No Collusion’?

Trump claimed in yet another tweet that the Republican-led House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence concluded “there was no collusion between Russia and the Trump Campaign.” That’s not quite accurate, according to Rep. Mike Conaway, one of the leaders of the committee’s investigation.

 

NBC’s Chuck Todd asked Conaway on “Meet the Press” on March 18 whether he regretted “trying to draw a conclusion about collusion?”

Conaway responded that “we haven’t drawn that.”

“What we said … is that we found no evidence of it. … That’s a different statement. We found no evidence of collusion,” Conaway said.

The Republicans on the House intelligence committee released on March 12 a one-page summary of their draft report on the Russia investigation. It said, “We have found no evidence of collusion, coordination, or conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russians.” The full report has not yet been released.

Did Comey Lie About Leaks?

Trump claimed Comey lied in congressional testimony last year about leaking information, but Trump misquoted the former FBI director. Trump said Comey denied having “known someone else to be an anonymous source.” Comey was actually asked whether he had “authorized” any leaks, and Comey said he had not.

Former FBI Deputy Director McCabe was fired on March 16 by Attorney General Jeff Sessions after an internal review by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz. Although details of Horowitz’s report have not been publicly released, CNN reported that it concluded McCabe “misled investigators about his role in directing other officials at the FBI to speak to The Wall Street Journal about his involvement in a public corruption investigation into the Clinton Foundation, according to a source briefed on it.”

Immediately after his firing, McCabe released a statement saying that he authorized the release of information to the media to counter what he says was a false media narrative that he had closed down the investigation into the Clinton Foundation “under political pressure.” McCabe said he sought to “set the record straight on behalf of the Bureau, and to make clear that we were continuing an investigation that people in DOJ opposed.”

In his statement, McCabe says that “the Director,” then James Comey, was aware of “the interaction with the reporter.”

McCabe statement, March 16: The OIG investigation has focused on information 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.

Now, let’s back up to what Comey told Republican Sen. Charles Grassley in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 3, 2017.

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.

Trump’s tweet says the fact that Comey “lied”  was “clearly shown” on “Fox & Friends,” which showed the McCabe quote and Comey’s Senate testimony back-to-back. And the co-hosts did say the quotes contradicted one another.

“Somebody’s lying,” said Fox & Friends co-host Rachel Campos-Duffy.

“Somebody is not telling the truth,” added co-host Pete Hegseth.

Note, though, that Grassley did not ask, as Trump’s tweet states, whether Comey had “known someone else to be an anonymous source.” Comey was asked whether he ever “authorized someone else at the FBI to be an anonymous source,” which Fox accurately reported.

McCabe said Comey was “aware of the interaction with the reporter.” We’ll leave it up to readers to decide whether being “aware of the interaction” is not the same as “authorizing” it, or if that is a difference without distinction. McCabe noted in his statement that, “As Deputy Director, I was one of only a few people who had the authority to do that.”

We should also note that Comey’s Senate testimony on May 3, 2017, came six days before he was fired. Testifying before the Senate intelligence committee on June 8, 2017, about a month after his firing, Comey said that after he had been fired, he gave a friend — later identified as Columbia University Professor Daniel C. Richman — a memo on what the president said to him about the FBI investigation and directed the friend to “share the content of the memo with a reporter.” The purpose, Comey said, was to increase the likelihood that a special prosecutor would be named.

“So you didn’t consider your memo or your sense of that conversation to be a government document?” Sen. Roy Blunt asked in the June 8 Senate hearing. “You considered it to be, somehow, your own personal document that you could share with the media as you wanted to through a friend?”

“Correct,” Comey said. “I understood this to be my recollection recorded of my conversation with the president. As a private citizen, I felt free to share that. I thought it important to get it out.”

Whether one considers Comey’s actions in this instance to be a leak or not, the fact is that it came after Comey’s testimony in which he said he had never anonymously leaked any information related to the Trump or Clinton investigations.

Jill McCabe’s Campaign Contributions

Trump again brought up campaign donations that McCabe’s wife received in 2015 from an ally of Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Trump tweeted last year that McCabe should have been replaced as then-acting FBI director because he was “the person in charge” of the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton, who Trump said gave “$700,000” in campaign contributions to McCabe’s wife. That’s false.

As we pointed out at the time, the $675,000 donated to Dr. Jill McCabe, who unsuccessfully ran for a Virginia state Senate seat in 2015, did not come from Clinton. It came from the Virginia Democratic Party and Common Good VA, which is the political action committee of former Democratic Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a longtime friend of the Clintons.

McCabe’s campaign received $467,500 from McAuliffe’s PAC and another $207,788 from the Virginia Democratic Party for the November 2015 election. The donations were all part of a failed effort by the Democratic governor to help the Democrats take control of the state Senate that year. For example, Common Good VA also gave $803,500 to state Senate candidate Jeremy McPike, who won his race, and $781,500 to Daniel Gecker, who lost his.

Furthermore, Jill McCabe had lost the election by the time her husband became FBI deputy director in February 2016, when he “assumed for the first time, an oversight role in the investigation into Secretary Clinton’s emails,” according to an FBI spokesman quoted by the Wall Street Journal.

And the donations to McCabe’s campaign were not the reason why McAuliffe was being investigated, as Trump’s tweet may have implied.

CNN reported in May 2016 that the FBI had been investigating “whether donations to his gubernatorial campaign violated the law.” CNN’s report said that federal investigators were focusing, in part, on $120,000 donated to McAuliffe’s campaign by the businesses of Wang Wenliang, a Chinese national who also holds U.S. permanent resident status.

Time magazine also reported that the FBI had been looking into McAuliffe’s “foreign sources of personal income and whether the governor lobbied on behalf of foreign interests without registering as a foreign agent.”

There have been no reports of charges being filed against McAuliffe.

Political Affiliations

Mueller is a Republican, who was appointed special counsel by Trump’s deputy attorney general and was nominated as FBI director in 2001 by then-President George W. Bush, a Republican. But Trump suggested there was Democratic bias against him on Mueller’s team.

He said in a tweet that there were “13 hardened Democrats, some big Crooked Hillary supporters, and Zero Republicans” on the team. It’s true there are 13 registered Democrats out of the 17 members of the team, according to the Washington Post. (Peter Carr, a spokesman for the special counsel, told us the special counsel doesn’t maintain any records on party affiliation of the staff.)

Four of the 13 registered Democrats have made no political contributions to federal candidates, and the four remaining members of the team have no party affiliation, or researchers at the Post were unable to find any record of an affiliation.

Of the nine team members who have made federal political contributions, five made donations to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. We can’t say whether the five investigators are “big” Clinton supporters, but we’ll note three of the five donated $250 or less each. Information on the contributions is available through the Center for Responsive Politics’ website.

All told the five team members gave $8,800 to Clinton’s 2016 campaign, with more than half of that coming from one person — Jeannie Rhee, who was a partner at WilmerHale and a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel. Mueller was a partner at WilmerHale before being appointed special counsel, and he has drawn several team members from the law firm. One other investigator gave $2,300 to Clinton in 2007.

Six of the nine team members who have made contributions have given money to Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, totaling $11,436. One of the investigators — James Quarles, also a former WilmerHale partner who worked as a prosecutor on the Watergate investigation — has given more than $30,000 to Democrats over the years, dating back to at least 1996. He also contributed $2,500 to Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz in 2015 and $250 to Republican Sen. George Allen in 2005.

It’s worth noting that Trump and his family also have donated to Democrats, and Republicans, in the past. The Center for Responsive Politics last year said: “Trump and his wives donated more than $370,000 to Democrats from 1989 to 2010, including at least one donation [in] 19 consecutive years.” The president also gave money to Hillary Clinton in 2002, 2005, 2006 and 2007.

Update, March 20: We have updated this story to clarify that all of the political contributions cited were for federal elections. The Daily Caller News Foundation found that two of the registered Democrats who haven’t contributed to federal campaigns did make contributions in state or local elections.  

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