Fact-checking the Robert Mueller hearings
On Wednesday, former special counsel Robert Mueller faces lawmakers at two separate hearings. We are fact checking the whole event, starting with President Donald Trump’s attempts to set the agenda with a series of early-morning Mueller-related tweets.
Before the hearing began, Trump tweeted eight times about Mueller and the investigation. He made false and misleading claims. Here’s a rundown:
“So Robert Mueller has now asked for his long time Never Trumper lawyer to sit beside him and help with answers,” Trump tweeted. “What’s this all about? His lawyer represented the ‘basement server guy’ who got off free in the Crooked Hillary case. This should NOT be allowed.”
“It was NEVER agreed that Robert Mueller could use one of his many Democrat Never Trumper lawyers to sit next to him and help him with his answers.”
Facts First: There is no public evidence that lawyer and former FBI agent Aaron Zebley is either a Democrat or a “Never Trumper,” a term generally used to describe Republicans who are steadfastly opposed to Trump. Zebley has not donated to either party, according to the Washington Post, and is not registered with either party. We could not find any public statements from him about Trump.
Zebley served as Mueller’s chief of staff during his final years as FBI Director. After Mueller left the FBI and joined the WilmerHale law firm in 2014, Zebley followed him there. Zebley did represent Justin Cooper, who helped Hillary Clinton set up her controversial private email server.
Obstruction of justice
Trump tweeted: “So Democrats and others can illegally fabricate a crime, try pinning it on a very innocent President, and when he fights back against this illegal and treasonous attack on our Country, they call It Obstruction? Wrong!”
Facts First: There is no evidence that the Mueller investigation was “illegal,” nor that any crime was fabricated.
Mueller’s report detailed evidence that Trump may have committed obstruction of justice in multiple instances. Mueller said he could not charge a sitting president with a crime on account of a longstanding Department of Justice policy, but it was not solely “Democrats” who said obstruction may have occurred.
Mueller confirmed at Wednesday’s hearing that the report did not exonerate Trump on the issue of obstruction of justice.
Trump tweeted: “Why didn’t Robert Mueller & his band of 18 Angry Democrats spend any time investigating Crooked Hillary Clinton, Lyin’ Leakin’ James Comey, Lisa Page and her Psycho lover, Peter S, Andy McCabe, the beautiful Ohr family, Fusion GPS, and many more, including HIMSELF <><><><><><><><><><> Andrew W?”/ppstrongFacts First:/strong emMueller himself is a longtime Republican. The majority of the lawyers on Mueller’s team had registered as Democrats, but not all of them./em/ppThe Washington Post a href=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2018/03/18/trump-said-muellers-team-has-13-hardened-democrats-here-are-the-facts/?utm_term=.f8b37697e091″ target=”_blank”found in 2018/a that 13 of the 17 lawyers then on the special counsel’s team had registered as Democrats; the Post said the other four had no affiliation or their affiliation could not be found.
In one tweet, Trump accused Mueller of being “highly conflicted.” In another tweet, he claimed he had turned down Mueller for the job of FBI director immediately before Mueller was appointed special counsel: “It has been reported that Robert Mueller is saying that he did not apply and interview for the job of FBI Director (and get turned down) the day before he was wrongfully appointed Special Counsel. Hope he doesn’t say that under oath in that we have numerous witnesses to the interview, including the Vice President of the United States!”
Facts First: Then-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, then-chief of staff Reince Priebus and then-counsel Don McGahn rejected Trump’s claim that Mueller had conflicts of interest, according to the Mueller report. Bannon and Mueller say Mueller was not a candidate for the job when he spoke to Trump about it.
Bannon told Mueller’s team that he had told Trump that “the purported conflicts were ‘ridiculous’ and that none of them was real or could come close to justifying precluding Mueller from serving as Special Counsel,” the report said.
Trump has accused Mueller of conflicts over multiple alleged issues.
Trump has claimed Mueller was “best friends” with former FBI director James Comey, who was a witness in the Mueller investigation and who was fired by Trump. Mueller said in his testimony Wednesday that they were “business associates”; when pressed, he conceded they are “friends.” But there is no evidence they were “best friends” or that they have been photographed “hugging and kissing,” as Trump has previously alleged.
Mueller served as FBI director for 12 years between 2001 and 2013. Bannon told Mueller’s investigators that Mueller’s conversation with Trump in May 2017 was not in the capacity of a candidate to return to the job and that Mueller “did not come in looking for the job.” According to the Mueller report, rather, Bannon said “the White House had invited Mueller to speak to the President to offer a perspective on the institution of the FBI.” Mueller said in his testimony Wednesday that while he had discussed the job with Trump, it was “not as a candidate.”
“I was asked to give my input on what it would take to do the job,” Mueller testified. The “interview,” he said, “was about the job and not about me applying for the job.”
Asked if he had told the vice president that the one job he would come back for was the job of FBI director, Mueller said, “Don’t recall that one.”
Trump has also cited a supposed personal dispute between himself and Mueller, which Trump described as a “nasty business transaction.” He was apparently referring to Mueller’s 2011 decision to leave the Trump National Golf Club in Virginia.
According to the Mueller report, Mueller wrote a letter to the club explaining that he was “unable to make full use of the Club,” since he was then living in Washington, D.C., and asked “whether we would be entitled to a refund of a portion of our initial membership fee” from 1994. The club responded that he would be “placed on a waitlist” for the refund; “the Muellers have not had further contact with the club,” the report said.
A spokesperson for Mueller told the Daily Mail in 2017: “Mr. Mueller left the club in October 2011 without dispute.”
In another tweet, Trump accused Hillary Clinton of having “deleted and acid washed 33,000 Emails immediately AFTER getting a SUBPOENA from the United States Congress.”
Facts First: A server company working for Clinton deleted these emails using a free software program called BleachBit. They were not “acid washed.” Though Trump is correct that the emails were deleted three weeks after the subpoena was issued, a Clinton aide had requested the deletion before the subpoena was issued; there is no evidence Clinton’s team had ordered any deletions after receiving the subpoena.
The emails, which Clinton had deemed personal and not related to her job as Secretary of State, were deleted three weeks after the House Select Committee on Benghazi issued a subpoena demanding the retention of Clinton emails. An employee of the server company, Paul Combetta, told the FBI that he had deleted the emails after belatedly realizing he had forgotten to carry out a request made by Clinton aide Cheryl Mills in 2014, prior to the subpoena, to change Clinton’s email policy so that messages more than 60 days old would be automatically purged.
James Comey, then the FBI director, told the House Judiciary Committee in 2016 that there is no evidence Combetta was ordered to execute the deletion after the receipt of the subpoena.
“No email, no phone call, nothing,” Comey said.
“He was told to do it in 2014, screwed up and didn’t do it, panicked when he realized he hadn’t and then raced back in and did it after Congress asked for the records and the New York Times wrote about them.”
In his opening statement, Republican Georgia Rep. Doug Collins made an incorrect claim regarding former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report and the events surrounding it.
Collins stated that Mueller’s report concluded President Donald Trump’s “family and advisors did not” seek “Russian assistance to win the presidency.”
Facts First: This is incorrect. Members of the Trump family and Trump’s campaign chairman welcomed Russian assistance to get damning information on the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
As outlined in the report, Donald Trump Jr, along with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and Trump’s then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort met with a Russian lawyer promising to provide dirt on Clinton. “On June 9, 2016, senior representatives of the Trump Campaign met in Trump Tower with a Russian attorney expecting to receive derogatory information about Hillary Clinton from the Russian government,” the report says.
The report also states:
“In sum, the investigation established multiple links between Trump Campaign officials and individuals tied to the Russian government. Those links included Russian offers of assistance to the Campaign. In some instances, the Campaign was receptive to the offer, while in other instances the Campaign officials shied away.”
As Mueller refused to answer many of Republican Florida Rep. Greg Steube’s questions over ex-British intelligence agent Christopher Steele — author of the infamous dossier — Steube invoked a common refrain from defenders of the President: that the dossier provided “the very basis of the investigation.”
“I’m very hopeful and glad that AG Barr is looking into this,” Steube said, “because you’re unwilling to answer the questions of the American people as it relates to the very basis of this investigation into the President and the very basis of this individual who you did interview.”
Facts First: The dossier was not the basis for the FBI’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
The investigation began more than a month before the dossier reached the FBI, after Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos told a foreign diplomat that Russia had damaging political information on Hillary Clinton. This information was passed along to US authorities and prompted the FBI to begin investigating potential collusion.
According to a 2018 report from Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee following its own investigation, “The Federal Bureau of Investigation opened an enterprise counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign after receiving information related to Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos.”
Steele dossier and FISA warrant
Republican California Rep. Devin Nunes made a claim about how the FBI made use of the Steele dossier.
“Among other things, the FBI used dossier allegations to obtain a warrant to spy on the Trump campaign,” Nunes said.
Facts First: Material from the dossier was used in an application to obtain a warrant to surveil one particular person, Carter Page, after Page had taken a leave of absence from the campaign.
Page took his leave from the campaign in September 2016. The application to surveil Page was filed with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in October 2016. In the application, the FBI correctly described Page as a “former” foreign policy adviser to Trump, and said, “The FBI believes Page has been the subject of targeted recruitment by the Russian government.”
Information from the dossier was not the only component of the FISA application, which was approved by federal judges. (Since a significant portion of the application was redacted upon its release last year, it is not precisely clear how much of the application came from the dossier and how much came from other sources.)
The application noted that Page had relationships with alleged members of Russian intelligence, which had been known to US intelligence since 2013.
This story has been updated.