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FactChecking Trump’s ‘60 Minutes’ Interview

In a wide-ranging interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” President Donald Trump repeated several false and misleading claims, while putting a new twist on some of them:

  • Trump falsely claimed Russia “wouldn’t be able to help me at all,” even if he had called Russia “to help me with an election” in 2016. Russian companies financed and carried out an extensive social media campaign, and Russian government agents hacked into Democratic computers to obtain and stage the release of damaging documents, U.S. prosecutors allege.
  • Trump said “nobody really knows” if North Korea has continued to build more missiles, even after Trump’s summit with Kim Jong Un in June. But the Washington Post, citing unnamed U.S. officials, reported in July that North Korea was doing just that, and Fox News confirmed the report.

The president also repeated his false claim that the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that caused the controversial separation of families at the Southern border was “the same as the Obama law.” He again wrongly stated that the U.S. pays “almost the entire cost of NATO to protect Europe,” and he overstated the U.S. trade deficit with China. 

Russia’s 2016 Election Interference

In his interview with CBS’ Lesley Stahl, the president repeated his unsubstantiated claim that China interfered in the 2016 U.S. election (“I think China meddled too”) and offered a new twist regarding Russia’s role during the presidential campaign. He falsely claimed Russia “wouldn’t be able to help me at all,” even if he had sought out the U.S. adversary for help.

Trump, Oct. 14: Do you really think I’d call Russia to help me with an election? Give me a break. They wouldn’t be able to help me at all. Call Russia. It’s so ridiculous.

The special counsel’s investigation into the 2016 election is ongoing. But, contrary to the president’s claim, there is evidence that Russia helped Trump’s election chances in multiple ways.

In July, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III filed an indictment against 12 members of a Russian military intelligence agency known as the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff, or GRU. The officers “engaged in a sustained effort to hack into the computer networks of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic National Committee, and the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, and released that information on the internet under the names ‘DCLeaks’ and ‘Guccifer 2.0’, and through another entity,” a Justice Department press release said.

“The object of the conspiracy was to hack into the computers of U.S. persons and entities involved in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, steal documents from those computers, and stage releases of the stolen documents to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election,” the indictment said.

For example, WikiLeaks, identified as “Organization 1″ in the indictment, released Clinton Campaign Chairman John Podesta’s emails on Oct. 7 less than an hour after the Washington Post reported that Trump once bragged about groping women. 

“In order to expand their interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the Conspirators transferred many of the documents they stole from the DNC and the chairman of the Clinton Campaign to Organization 1,” the indictment said. “The Conspirators, posing as Guccifer 2.0, discussed the release of the stolen documents and the timing of those releases with Organization 1 to heighten their impact on the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”

In addition to the damaging releases of hacked emails, three Russian organizations and 13 Russian nationals were indicted in February for their role in an extensive pro-Trump social media advertising campaign.

The indictment alleges that the Internet Research Agency, a Russian-based online propaganda company, oversaw the pro-Trump influence campaign, which was financed by Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a man described as “Putin’s cook” or “Putin’s chef,” and his two companies, Concord Management and Consulting LLC and Concord Catering.

“From at least April 2016 through November 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators, while concealing their Russian identities and ORGANIZATION affiliation through false personas, began to produce, purchase, and post advertisements on U.S. social media and other online sites expressly advocating for the election of then-candidate Trump or expressly opposing Clinton,” according to the indictment, which referred to the Internet Research Agency as the “organization.”

Colin Stretch, Facebook’s general counsel, told a Senate panel last year that “approximately 126 million people may have been served content from a Page associated with” the Internet Research Agency. At the same hearing, Sean J. Edgett, Twitter’s acting general counsel, said the company identified 36,746 automated accounts, known as bots, that “generated approximately 1.4 million automated, election-related Tweets, which collectively received approximately 288 million impressions.”

In addition, Internet Research Agency mobilized Trump supporters for political rallies, focusing on so-called “purple states like Colorado, Virginia & Florida,” according to the indictment, quoting from documents, such as emails and private Facebook messages, obtained during the investigation. Trump, who lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, captured the Electoral College votes and the election by narrowly winning in key swing, or “purple,” states, such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

In a Jan. 6, 2017, report, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016″ to “undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency,” as well as “help President-elect Trump’s election chances.” The report “did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcomes of the 2016 election,” because it “does not analyze US political processes or US public opinion.”

North Korea’s Missiles

As he has done in the past, Trump boasted about the relationship he has developed with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The president said Kim “understands denuclearization and he’s agreed to it.”

That’s not quite accurate. Trump and Kim issued a joint statement in June saying that North Korea will “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” but they have yet to come to an agreement on the terms of a denuclearization plan.

“He doesn’t wanna go to war, and we don’t wanna go to war, and he understands denuclearization and he’s agreed to it,” Trump said. “And you see that, he’s agreed to it. No missiles.”

When Stahl pressed Trump, asking if North Korea “may actually be building more missiles,” Trump responded, “Well, nobody really knows.”

Stahl: But is it true that they haven’t gotten rid of a single weapon, and they may actually be building more missiles-

Trump: They want to–

Stahl: With nuclear–

Trump: And I will tell you that they’re closing up sites.

Stahl: But–

Trump: Setting it up.

Stahl: Is what I said true, that they haven’t? Gotten–

Trump: Well, nobody really knows. I mean, people are saying that. I’ve actually said that.

Stahl: What? That they’re still building missiles, more missiles?

Trump: We don’t really know, Lesley. We really don’t know. But I assume–

Stahl: Suspect that?

Trump: Let’s say the answer is yes, okay? In the meantime, they haven’t tested a missile. They haven’t tested a rocket. They definitely haven’t done a nuclear test because you know about them real fast. It sort of moves the earth. And we have a relationship now.

The Washington Post, citing unnamed U.S. officials, reported on July 30: “Newly obtained evidence, including satellite photos taken in recent weeks, indicates that work is underway on at least one and possibly two liquid-fueled ICBMs at a large research facility in Sanumdong, on the outskirts of Pyongyang, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe classified intelligence.” That was a month and a half after the meeting between Trump and Kim Jong Un.

A day after the Post article was published, Fox News confirmed the reports “that North Korea is now busy once again building more missiles.”

“U.S. officials telling Fox News, this is a quote, ‘It is business as usual’ at a factory near Pyongyang that builds ICBMs capable of reaching the United States,” reported Greg Palkot, a senior foreign affairs correspondent for Fox News Channel. “Analysis of satellite photography showing, quote, ‘There is no evidence of a halt of work.’ We’re talking about the long-range liquid-fueled missiles used three times last year in test firings that could, potentially, reach the East Coast of the United States. Recent work activity visible.”

Michael E. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow and director of foreign policy research at the Brookings Institution, told us, “President Trump is technically correct because we aren’t completely sure about what is built at each factory or whether construction will conclude for each missile now in the works.”

“But,” he told us via email, “the circumstantial evidence is very strong that North Korea does in fact continue to build more long-range missiles (and nuclear weapons) and that should be the presumption upon which US policy is based.”

Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, said in an email to FactCheck.org: “North Korea did not commit to halt missile production, so it is very likely that Pyongyang is continuing to build nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. Kim Jong Un made clear in his January 2018 address that the mass production of nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles was a goal for the upcoming year. Recent satellite imagery indicating activity at missile production sites also points toward the conclusion that North Korea continues to quantitatively expand its nuclear arsenal.”

During the Jan. 1, 2018, address referenced by Davenport, Kim Jong Un said, “The nuclear weapons research sector and the rocket industry should mass-produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles.”

Joshua Pollack, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and editor of the Nonproliferation Review, told us that for the the Washington Post story, some of his CNS colleagues used commercial space imagery and confirmed that “the Sanumdong missile R&D facility is active, although they could not independently establish what activities were underway inside.”

“The intelligence community clearly has better resources than CNS does, so I assume that they are in a better position to make such determinations,” Pollack added.

“Separately, CNS did independently discover this year that North Korea has pressed ahead with the construction of new production facilities at a different plant, the Chemical Materials Institute, which makes missile components.” Pollack said.

That’s consistent, he said, with statements Kim Jong Un made during a visit to the site in August 2017.

“So by the available indications, we have concluded that missile production is underway, consistent with plans declared in Kim Jong Un’s Jan 1, 2018 speech — the same speech in which he unveiled his new diplomatic initiative,” Pollack said.

Trump Repeats

The president repeated several claims we’ve written about before:

On the administration’s “zero tolerance” border policy: Trump repeatedly claimed that the “zero tolerance” policy that caused the controversial separation of families at the Southern border was “the same as the Obama law. You know, Obama had the same thing.” That’s misleading. There were some family separations under previous administrations, experts told us when we examined this claim in June, but there was no blanket policy to prosecute parents and, therefore, separate them from their children. 

Members of the Trump administration have claimed that there’s nothing new about this, yet a new policy was announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in early April to refer all illegal border crossings for criminal prosecution. Since children can’t be held in adult detention facilities, the referral resulted in parents being separated from their children.

The Department of Homeland Security wasn’t able to provide any figures for family separations under the Obama administration, but it said 2,342 children had been separated from their parents from early May to early June of this year. Trump signed an executive order to end the separations in late June.

On NATO: Trump said the United States “shouldn’t be paying almost the entire cost of NATO to protect Europe.” It doesn’t. The U.S. pays just over 22 percent of NATO’s commonly funded budget, which includes civil, military and security investment expenses and is funded through a formula based on the gross national income of each member country.

The president has repeatedly complained about indirect NATO spending — what each country spends on its own national defense. But even there, the U.S. share of total defense spending by member countries in 2017 was 67 percent, according to inflation-adjusted figures from NATO.

On Christine Blasey Ford: The president was asked why, in a campaign-style rally in Mississippi, he had made fun of Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were in high school. Trump said: “What I said is the person that we’re talking about didn’t know the year, the time, the place.” But that’s incorrect. Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that the alleged attack occurred in the summer of 1982 in an upstairs bedroom of a house in the Bethesda area of Maryland. What she could not provide was the exact date and address of the alleged attack.

On trade with China: Trump repeated his claim that China takes “$500 billion a year out of the United States in the form of trade and others things.” As we wrote in “Trump’s Numbers,” the goods-and-services trade deficit with China was $351 billion for the most recent 12 months on record. In 2017, the U.S. trade deficit in goods with China was $376 billion, but that was partially offset by a trade surplus of $40 billion in services, such as software, legal and communications services, for a total trade balance of negative $336 billion.

Correction, Oct. 18, 2018: The story was updated to reflect that CNS used commercial space imagery to confirm activity at the Sanumdong missile R&D facility for the Washington Post story, not after it ran.

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"Do you really think I’d call Russia to help me with an election? Give me a break. They wouldn’t be able to help me at all."
CBS' 60 Minutes
Sunday, October 14, 2018
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Reports Say It Has
“Nobody really knows” if North Korea has continued to build more missiles.
CBS' "60 Minutes"
Sunday, October 14, 2018