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Flurry of Trump Falsehoods

The president distorted the facts on congressional subpoenas, trade, Syria and more during a busy day of public appearances.


Summary

In two press appearances in the same day, President Donald Trump made several false claims and distorted the facts on issues ranging from Syria to trade:

  • Trump claimed that former GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan “would never issue a subpoena,” because of his “respect for our country.” But subpoenas were issued under Ryan’s watch. “Our committee alone issued more than 100 subpoenas,” a former GOP House oversight staffer has said.
  • Trump said “the FBI never got” the DNC server that was hacked during the 2016 election, and that the server is now held by a company co-owned by someone “from Ukraine.” But the company — which is based in the U.S. — gave the FBI an exact copy of the DNC hard drives. It also has said it never possessed the servers and that its owners are not from Ukraine.
  • Trump exaggerated his influence when he boasted that “nobody else but me” would have gotten a U.S. win in a World Trade Organization case involving European Union subsidies to Airbus. A string of WTO decisions since 2011 had already established that the subsidies broke trade rules.
  • The president repeated his false claim that the U.S. military was originally supposed to be in Syria for only “30 days.” He also ignored the progress made against the Islamic State by the Obama administration, saying “when I came in under President Obama, ISIS was a disaster all over that area. I was the one that got them.”
  • Trump again distorted the facts about the whistleblower report’s account of his July 25 phone call with the president of Ukraine. The White House-released rough transcript of the call supported what the whistleblower said.
  • He said he was able to secure the release of a U.S. pastor detained by Turkey “very quickly,” while the previous administration failed. It’s worth noting the pastor was detained less than four months before Trump took office and released nearly 21 months after.
  • While boasting about the performance of the stock market, Trump repeated the false claim that “all people own in the stock markets.” Only about half of Americans own stock, directly or indirectly.
  • The president greatly exaggerated the trade deficit with the European Union, claiming it “could even be $178 billion.” It was $114.6 billion in 2018.
Analysis

Trump made his claims in two press appearances with Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, at the White House on Oct. 16. The two men first made remarks before their bilateral meeting and then held a joint press conference.

Subpoenas Issued Under Ryan

In criticizing the House Democrats for their handling of the impeachment inquiry, Trump said former GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan never issued subpoenas.

Trump, Oct. 16: [T]he Republicans have been treated very unfairly by the Democrats. I’ll say this: Paul Ryan would never issue a subpoena. I don’t say right or wrong. He wouldn’t do it. He had too much respect for our country.

That’s not true. Republican committees issued numerous subpoenas to Obama administration officials, including during Ryan’s relatively brief time as speaker when Barack Obama was president. Ryan served as speaker from Oct. 29, 2015, to Jan. 3, 2019, so he ruled the House for little more than one year when Obama was president.

Trump made a similar claim on Oct. 2, prompting Kurt Bardella, who was a spokesman for the GOP-controlled House oversight committee, to tweet: “wow … @realDonaldTrump just said Republicans didn’t issue subpoenas to @BarackObama … as the former Spokesperson/Advisor for @GOPoversight I can tell you this is 100% false … our committee alone issued more than 100 subpoenas to the Obama Admin.”

In September 2016, Democrats on the House oversight committee issued a press release with links to 17 subpoenas that were issued by two GOP-controlled committee investigations of Hillary Clinton, a former secretary of state and 2016 Democratic presidential nominee. The 17 subpoenas were issued in August and September 2016, a few months before the 2016 presidential election, by the Committee on Oversight and Reform and the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

In October 2016, the House oversight committee also went to court to force the Obama administration to comply with a subpoena for documents related to its investigation of the “Fast and Furious” gun trafficking operation.   

Although the most active of the Republican-controlled committees, the House oversight committee wasn’t the only panel that issued subpoenas.

In March 2016, the GOP-controlled House Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce committees issued subpoenas related to the Affordable Care Act.

These subpoenas were issued by the committee chairs, not the speaker. But that’s how the system works, as provided for under the Constitution and spelled out in House rules regardless of which party is in control.

For example, committee chairmen were the ones who signed subpoenas to compel Trump’s former White House counsel and a State Department official under Obama to testify.

In 2015, before Ryan became speaker, several House committees adopted rules giving their chairmen unilateral authority to issue subpoenas, without holding a vote of committee members or consulting with the ranking minority member. Sixteen of the ranking Democratic committee members at the time objected to the move in a February 2015 letter.

The rules on issuing subpoenas vary by committee. According to a Jan. 29, 2018, Congressional Research Service report, four House committees allow the chair to issue a subpoena without either a vote of committee members or consultation with the ranking minority member.

So for Trump to suggest that Ryan and the Republicans handled subpoenas differently than Democrats do now is a specious argument.

The fact is, there were congressional subpoenas sent to administration officials when Ryan was speaker and Obama was president.

The subpoenas we mention here don’t even include the subpoenas issued during House investigations of the deadly 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. The last subpoenas were issued in August 2015, according to the oversight committee. Ryan wasn’t speaker then.

The DNC Server Conspiracy Theory

In his remarks in the Oval Office, Trump also made a combination of misleading and false statements that appear to be based on multiple conspiracy theories.

Trump: But Rudy was one of many people that was incensed at the corruption that took place during that election. Pure corruption. For instance, I still ask the FBI: Where is the server? How come the FBI never got the server from the DNC? Where is the server? I want to see the server. Let’s see what’s on the server. So, the server, they say, is held by a company whose primary ownership individual is from Ukraine. I’d like to see the server. I think it’s very important for this country to see the server. Nobody wants to see it. The media never wants to see it. But I’ll tell you, Republicans want to see it.

The president is referring to the Democratic National Committee, which was the target of a cyberattack during the 2016 election cycle. The DNC hired CrowdStrike, a California-based cybersecurity firm, to investigate whether its servers had been hacked, and the firm later concluded that the DNC’s servers were breached in 2015 and 2016 by two separate Russian espionage groups that stole DNC emails and opposition research on Trump.

It’s true that the FBI did not obtain access to any physical DNC servers or hardware when the agency conducted its own investigation later. Instead, CrowdStrike made a copy of what was on the DNC’s computer systems and provided that information to the FBI to use in the federal investigation.

“With regards to our investigation of the DNC hack in 2016, we provided all forensic evidence and analysis to the FBI,” CrowdStrike says in a blog post on its website.

That is backed up by former FBI Director James Comey’s congressional testimony in March 2017.

“We never got direct access to the machines themselves. The DNC in the spring of 2016 hired a firm that ultimately shared with us their forensics from their review of the system,” Comey said. ”We got the forensics from the pros that they hired which — again, best practice is always to get access to the machines themselves, but this, my folks tell me, was a appropriate substitute.”

But there’s no evidence the DNC servers are being “held” by CrowdStrike, as Trump seemed to suggest. “We have never taken physical possession of any DNC servers,” the firm has explained.

“When cyber investigators respond to an incident, they capture that evidence in a process called ‘imaging.’ It involves making an exact byte-for-byte copy of the hard drives. They do the same for the machine’s memory, capturing evidence that would otherwise be lost at the next reboot, and they monitor and store the traffic passing through the victim’s network. This has been standard procedure in incident response investigations for decades. The images, not the computer’s hardware, provide the evidence,” CrowdStrike said.

In court documents filed in a lawsuit the DNC brought against Russia and other parties, the DNC said that “in order to remove the unauthorized users from its network,” it had to “decommission more than 140 servers, remove and reinstall all software, including the operating systems, for more than 180 computers, and rebuild at least 11 servers.”

And some of the servers the Russians accessed were “virtual servers,” not physical ones, a DNC court filing said.

So, there wasn’t just one server, as Trump stated.

It’s also not true that a “primary ownership individual” for CrowdStrike “is from Ukraine.”

The firm was founded in 2011 by George Kurtz and Dmitri Alperovitch, who are both U.S. citizens. Kurtz, the firm’s CEO, is from New Jersey, and Alperovitch, who serves as chief technology officer, was born in Russia but came to the U.S. with his family in the 1990s.

Trump’s interest in CrowdStrike appears to be based on conspiracy theories that maintain it was Ukrainians who hacked the DNC and then framed it on the Russians, and that CrowdStrike or Ukraine may be in possession of a hidden DNC server containing 33,000 of Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails from her time as secretary of state.

Trump asked the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate CrowdStrike during their July phone call.

“I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike … I guess you have one of your wealthy people… The server, they say Ukraine has it,” Trump said, according to a memo of the call released by the White House. The ellipses are in the memo.

However, the DNC’s servers and the private server Clinton used while leading the State Department are not the same servers. Plus, CrowdStrike has already said, “We have never worked for Secretary Clinton or her campaign, and never had access to her server or emails.”

Also, the U.S. intelligence community concluded in 2017 that the DNC was, in fact, hacked by Russians, and the 2019 report from Russia investigation special counsel Robert S. Mueller III detailed the ways the Russians did it. Based on Mueller’s investigation, the Department of Justice has charged several Russian individuals and groups with “committing federal crimes while seeking to interfere in the United States political system, including the 2016 Presidential election.”

WTO Spin

Trump wrongly boasted that the U.S. “essentially never won” with the World Trade Organization before he took office and that “nobody else but me” would have gotten the WTO to authorize the U.S. to impose up to $7.5 billion a year in tariffs on European Union goods in response to its subsidies to Airbus.

The U.S. has historically won most of the cases it has brought to the WTO against other nations. As for the Airbus ruling, trade experts say the more than decade-old dispute has been breaking the U.S.’s way for years, and the award would likely have come down as it did no matter who was president.

Trump: We never won with the WTO, or essentially never won. Very seldom did we win. And now we’re winning a lot. We’re winning a lot because they know if we’re not treated fairly, we’re leaving. …

Nobody else but me would have gotten that $7.5 billion back for the taxpayers of the United States.

Trump is referring to the WTO announcement on Oct. 14 that it was authorizing the U.S. to impose tariffs of up to $7.5 billion a year on European Union goods and services because the EU had failed to remove subsidies for the European aircraft manufacturer Airbus that were inconsistent with the trade agreement and harmed Airbus’ U.S. rival, Boeing.

“For years, Europe has been providing massive subsidies to Airbus that have seriously injured the U.S. aerospace industry and our workers. Finally, after 15 years of litigation, the WTO has confirmed that the United States is entitled to impose countermeasures in response to the EU’s illegal subsidies,” U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said in a press release.

But trade experts say Trump claims too much credit for the WTO’s decision with comments like, “nobody else but me” would have gotten it.

The case dates back to 2004 and, as the U.S. trade representative press release noted, the WTO decision this week “follows four previous panel and appellate reports from 2011-2018 finding that EU subsidies to Airbus break WTO rules.”

Simon Lester, a trade policy analyst for the libertarian Cato Institute, said the WTO announcement is “just another decision in a long-running dispute.”

“This particular decision involved some technical calculations related to economic damages, and it is hard to imagine that it would have come out differently if Trump were not president,” Lester told us via email.

William Reinsch, a former Commerce Department official during the Clinton administration, called Trump’s credit-taking “ridiculous.”

“This last episode was just about setting the amount of authorized retaliation,” Reinsch, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told us via email. “The U.S. ‘won’ some time ago, and the Trump administration had nothing to do with it.” That the case is in its final stage at this point, during the Trump administration, is “coincidence,” he said.

Reinsch added that the $7.5 billion award was “a lower number than we had said we were entitled to, so it’s a bit less of a victory than he says.”

Not mentioned by Trump is that the WTO is expected next year to make a determination on the EU’s case to levy tariffs on the U.S. over its aid to Boeing.

The U.S. “has already lost the Boeing case, but the remaining issue is how much we owe them,” Reinsch said. “That case is 6-8 months behind Airbus, so what they owe us came out first. The view in the U.S. is that the Boeing number will be much lower than the Airbus number, but the Europeans insist it will be about the same. I think they’re wrong about that, but you can’t really say until the arbiter reports.”

Added Lester, “The upcoming Boeing decision will be a similar technical calculation relating to damages. The only question is how big the damage award will be, and that is very hard to predict. My instinct is that, based on the government actions at issue, this award will be less than the Airbus one, but it’s hard to say for sure and by how much.”

During the press conference, Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, said, with the situation heading toward dueling tariffs, the U.S. and EU ought to negotiate a settlement.

“Currently, following the WTO’s decision concerning Airbus, there may be tariffs,” Mattarella said. “And there may be tariffs in six months’ time concerning the subsidies given to Boeing. This is a mere race between tariffs, mutual tariffs. I think it would be best to meet and to deal with our mutual needs so that a solution can be found.”

Trade experts also said Trump was wrong when he claimed the U.S. has dramatically improved its record on winning cases before the WTO. As we have written, the U.S. has historically won the vast majority of cases it brings, and lost most of the cases brought against it. (That’s generally how other countries fare before the WTO as well.)

“Generally speaking, the US success rate at the WTO is about the same now as it was pre-Trump,” Lester told us via email. “It’s a difficult thing to measure, but based on my assessment, the overall rate has not changed.”

Reinsch said Trump’s boast about an improved record with the WTO under his presidency is “simply not true.”

“There are different ways to count WTO cases, but the consensus view has long been that our winning record is better than other countries, and we lose less than other countries,” Reinsch said.

U.S. Military Presence in Syria

Trump distorted the facts on three occasions in his remarks on the U.S. military presence in Syria. He twice repeated his false claim that the U.S. military was supposed to be in Syria for only “30 days.” He also justified the withdrawal of troops from Syria by asking, “Why are we protecting their land?” The U.S. sent troops to fight the terrorist group the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), not to protect Syria’s land from Turkey. Trump claimed that “under President Obama, ISIS was a disaster all over that area. I was the one that got them.” But Trump takes too much credit; some of the ISIS controlled land had been recaptured under Obama.

We’ll go through each claim.

“30 days”? Trump claimed, “We were supposed to be there for 30 days, we stayed for 10 years.” Experts told us they had never heard of such a plan, and Obama administration officials set no time frame for such an early withdrawal when U.S. soldiers were first deployed in 2015.

The Defense Department launched Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve in October 2014, a coalition that eventually included more than 70 countries, as the Congressional Research Service explained in a March report. Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said in an Oct. 9, 2015, statement: “As we have said from the beginning, the fight against ISIL will take time. Working with local partners to win back territory taken by ISIL will continue to be a long and arduous process.”

Later that month, the U.S. announced the deployment of special operations forces to Syria. Press Secretary Josh Earnest was asked at press conference how long the U.S. soldiers would remain in Syria. “I don’t have a specific date to give you when they will come out,” Earnest told reporters.

When we wrote about this topic earlier this month, Vera Mironova, an associate at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, and Michael E. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow and director of research in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, told us they never heard the Obama administration set a 30-day time frame. 

“Why are we protecting their land?” Trump was asked during the joint press conference about Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to invade northern Syria and attack the Kurds after Trump withdrew U.S. troops from the area.

Trump: President Erdogan’s decision didn’t surprise me because he’s wanted to do that for a long time. He’s been building up troops on the border with Syria for a long time, as you know. Our soldiers are mostly gone from the area. We only had 26, 28, but … under 50 soldiers, which is a very tiny force. And it didn’t surprise me at all. This is, they’ve been warring for many years. It’s unnatural for us, but it’s sort of natural for them. They fight and they fight long and they fight hard and they’ve been fighting Syria for a long time. … I say why are we protecting Syria’s land? [Syrian President Bashar] Assad’s not a friend of ours. Why are we protecting their land?

Of course, the U.S. wasn’t in Syria to protect land from Turkey. The U.S. was there to fight the Islamic State. As the March CRS report explains, U.S. air strikes began in Syria in September 2014 “with the stated goal of preventing the Islamic State from using Syria as a base for its operations in neighboring Iraq.” In October 2015 the Syrian Democratic Forces, made up of Kurdish fighters and Arab rebels, formed, becoming a key U.S. ally.

A day after Trump’s comments, on Oct. 17, Vice President Mike Pence announced Turkey had agreed to a ceasefire in northern Syria.

“I was the one that got [ISIS].” Trump, as he has done before, took too much credit for U.S.-allied forces recapturing land once controlled by the Islamic State. “We were the ones that got ISIS. We’re the ones that took care of it, specifically me because I’m the one that gave the order, because when I came in under President Obama, ISIS was a disaster all over that area. I was the one that got them,” he said.

It’s true that the Islamic State’s final stronghold in eastern Syria was retaken under Trump. The SDF made the announcement that the last piece of land was retaken in March. But about 49% of the terrorist group’s territory had been retaken under Obama.

Brett McGurk, then-special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIS, said in a Dec. 21, 2017, briefing that about 98% of the land comprising the ISIS caliphate had been recovered by coalition forces, and 50% of that recovery had happened in 2017.

That would mean the rest of the recovery had ocurred under Obama.

Estimates from the analytics and consultancy firm IHS Markit show 33% of the Islamic State’s land, measured from its height, had been retaken under Obama.

Experts also have cautioned that while the land was recaptured, the Islamic State remains a dangerous threat.

Whistleblower Report

Trump once again distorted the facts about the whistleblower report’s account of his July 25 phone call with the president of Ukraine. Trump said the White House immediately released a transcript of the call — an “exact copy” — that proved the whistleblower’s report was “totally wrong.”

“Fortunately, they had transcribers, stenographers — people that do this for a living — on the line because we have an exact copy of the report, of the call,” he said. “So the call was put out immediately when I started hearing about the whistleblower. Well, the whistleblower’s report was totally wrong. The whistleblower didn’t know what he was talking about, or was given false information, or it was even worse than that.”

As we wrote before, the White House did not release an “exact copy” of a stenographer’s report. Instead, it released a call memo known as a “TELCON” that included a note saying it “is not a verbatim transcript.” The memo says, “The text in this document records the notes and recollections of Situation Room Duty Officers and NSC policy staff assigned to listen and memorialize the conversation in written form as the conversation takes place.”

The whistleblower’s account of the phone call matches up with the White House-released memo. Specifically, the whistleblower made these three claims that were corroborated by the memo: Trump asked Zelensky to “initiate or continue an investigation” into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden; assist the U.S. in investigating allegations that “Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election originated in Ukraine”; and “meet or speak” about these matters with Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr.

There is disagreement on whether Trump “pressured” Zelensky to take these actions — a characterization made in the whistleblower’s report. Trump has denied pressuring Zelensky, repeatedly describing the call as “perfect.”

Pastor Brunson

Trump noted his administration’s success in securing the release from Turkey of a detained U.S. pastor and took a swipe at the Obama administration for failing to do so.

Trump: I got Pastor Brunson home. Nobody else could do it. The previous administration tried very hard. They were unable to do it. I did it very quickly.

Whether Trump was able to secure Pastor Andrew Brunson’s release “very quickly” is a matter of opinion. But it’s worth noting Brunson was detained three-and-a-half months before the end of then-President Barack Obama’s term, and Turkey released him nearly 21 months into Trump’s term.

A fact sheet on Brunson’s case from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom says he was detained in Turkey on Oct. 7, 2016, and had resided in the country for 23 years. Brunson was charged with  “membership in an armed terrorist organization” in a December 2016 court document, according to the USCIRF.

In his fourth hearing in 2018, Brunson was convicted of aiding terrorism but released that same day: Oct. 12, 2018. Two months earlier, Trump had doubled tariffs on steel and aluminum from Turkey.

Not ‘All’ Americans Own Stock

While boasting about the performance of the stock market since he has been president, Trump repeated the false claim that “not just rich people … all people own in the stock markets.” Only about half of Americans own stock, either directly or indirectly.

Trump: Record stock markets. And don’t forget, stock market is not just rich people; it’s all people. Because all people own in the stock markets. The New York Stock Exchange, all of them — they’re at record highs.

As we wrote in our latest, October 2019 edition of “Trump Numbers,” the stock market under Trump has continued a historical decade-long rise. Although the market has plateaued in recent months, at the close on Oct. 10, the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock average was 29.8% higher than it was on the last trading day before Trump’s inauguration. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, made up of 30 large corporations, was up 34.3% under Trump, and the NASDAQ composite index, made up of more than 3,000 companies, closed at 43.5% higher than before Trump took office.

But Trump is wrong to say that all Americans have benefited because “all people own in the stock markets.” As we wrote when Trump made a similar claim in March 2018, only about half of U.S. households owned stocks directly or indirectly (through mutual funds, trust funds or pension plans) in 2016, according to a paper published in November 2017 by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The author noted that stock ownership is “highly skewed” toward the wealthy, with the richest 10 percent of households owning 84 percent of all stock value.

Still Wrong on Trade Deficits

As he has done repeatedly, Trump greatly inflated the U.S. trade deficit with the European Union, using false numbers to support his quest for new trade agreements with the EU.

“America’s trade deficit with Italy accounts for about 20% of our nearly 150 to $170 billion probably, according to some estimates could even be $178 billion annual trade deficit with the European Union,” Trump said.

That’s wrong. The deficit with the EU in goods and services was $114.6 billion in 2018, which is actually up from $92.5 billion in 2016, the year before Trump took office, according to Bureau of Economic Analysis figures published by the Census Bureau.

The goods-only deficit hit $168.7 billion in 2018, up from $146.7 billion. Using the goods-only deficit, which the president has done in the past, ignores the trade surplus the U.S. enjoys in services, such as travel, transportation, finance and intellectual property.

Update, Oct. 19: This article has been updated to include information from court documents that show the DNC had multiple servers — including “virtual servers,” not physical ones. 

Correction, Nov. 26: Our story originally said about 44% of ISIS’ territory had been retaken under Obama, according to Trump administration figures. The correct number is about 49%. 

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