Fact Checking President Trump’s Claims About James Comey
President Donald Trump contended in recent days that he didn’t know his FBI chief, James Comey, well enough to lean on him for his loyalty.
That was one of a number of claims by the president that called for scrutiny in the fierce backwash of Comey’s accusations in Senate testimony that Trump exerted improper pressure on him to back off an FBI investigation.
A review of some statements from the president and his people on the Russia investigation, NATO, health care and more:
Trump: “I believe the James Comey leaks will be far more prevalent than anyone ever thought possible. Totally illegal? Very ‘cowardly!’ — tweet Sunday
The Facts: Cowardice and courage are in the eye of the beholder. As to Trump’s question about the legality of Comey’s disclosures, there’s scant expert opinion that the fired FBI chief broke the law when he released memos he wrote of his private conversations with Trump.
Several Republican lawmakers, though admiring of his testimony to Congress last week, said it was “inappropriate” for Comey to give the memos to a friend for the purpose of making them public. But few are alleging criminal behavior. “Releasing his memos is not damaging to national security,” Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma said Sunday.
Trump actually was ahead of Comey in disclosing content from their private meetings and phone calls. When he fired the director, Trump revealed that Comey had assured him he was not under FBI investigation. Comey said he resisted pressure from Trump to make that fact public because the investigation might expand to include the president.
Trump’s legal team has accused Comey of leaking “privileged information.” It’s not clear the memos meet that standard. When information is privileged, the Freedom of Information Act cannot be used to force its disclosure. But any of the participants in the discussion are still free to make it public, says Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy specialist with the Federation of American Scientists.
“The other peculiar thing about this whole discussion is that the claim of privilege supports the accuracy of Comey’s account,” he said. “Privilege can only apply to accurate information.”
Trump: “Because of our actions, money is starting to pour in to NATO. The money is starting to pour in. Other countries are starting to realize that it’s time to pay up and they’re doing that. Very proud of that fact.” News conference Friday
The Facts: Money is not pouring in and saying it twice does not make it so. This account of NATO finances is one of Trump’s favorite concoctions.
The real issue is how much NATO countries spend on their own military budgets. They agreed in 2014, well before he became president, to stop cutting military spending, and have lived up to that. They also agreed then to a goal of moving “toward” spending 2% of their gross domestic product on their own defense by 2024. Most are short of that and the target is not ironclad.
Trump knows how it works but cannot resist telling the more dramatic and false tale of NATO leaders sending in money because he pushed them to.
Trump on Comey: “I hardly know the man. I’m not going to say, ‘I want you to pledge allegiance.’ Who would do that? Who would ask a man to pledge allegiance under oath? I mean think of it, I hardly know the man. It doesn’t make sense.” — Trump news conference Friday
The Facts: How well Trump knows a person varies. It depends on how well he wants to be seen as knowing that person at the time.
Bragging early in the campaign about his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he said “I got to know him very well because we were both on 60 Minutes,” even though they were on different segments from different locations. When perceived closeness became a potential liability, Trump took to saying, “I don’t know Putin.”
In August 2016, when the Trump campaign announced the hiring of Steve Bannon as campaign CEO and the appointment of Kellyanne Conway as campaign manager, its statement quoted Trump as saying: “‘I have known Steve and Kellyanne both for many years.”
But this April, when he was trying to play down Bannon’s importance, he said “I didn’t know Steve” and “he was not involved in my campaign until very late.”
Actually, David Bossie, who was deputy campaign manager, told The Associated Press after Trump took office that Bossie had introduced Trump and Bannon in 2011 at Trump Tower and they had grown close. Bannon, while leader of conservative Breitbart News, interviewed Trump at least nine times in 2015 and 2016.
In his testimony, Comey detailed three one-on-one meetings with Trump in January and February, one of them a dinner. Comey also laid out specifics on at least two private phone calls initiated by Trump and said that altogether, they had had nine conversations.
In contrast, Comey said he and President Barack Obama only spoke twice in three years, and one of those times was to say farewell.
Trump: “The Democrats have no message, not on economics, not on taxes, not on jobs, not on failing #Obamacare. They are only OBSTRUCTIONISTS!” — tweet Sunday
Trump, tweeting a week ago that Democrats “are taking forever” to confirm his nominees, including ambassadors: “They are nothing but OBSTRUCTIONISTS! Want approvals.”
The Facts: Both on his team appointments and on policy, Trump hasn’t given Democrats much to obstruct, whether they want to or not.
He’s been strikingly slow in nominating people for jobs requiring Senate approval. And some major actions he promised to take quickly in his presidency have yet to be presented to Congress, perhaps most notably his plan to overhaul taxes.
Trump is lagging at least his last four predecessors on nominees. He’s only put forward 110, not even a quarter of the positions requiring confirmation. Barack Obama had more than double the number of candidates submitted for Senate approval by now, 252, according to the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service.
Vacancies remain at major embassies, among other offices. Trump has only nominated 11 ambassadors, of whom five have been approved, with scores more to come.
The shortfall is all the more striking considering that Trump’s fellow Republicans control the Senate and only a simple majority is required to confirm them.
Before Obama, Republican George W. Bush had submitted 202 nominees by this point of his presidency, Bill Clinton had nominated 207 and George H.W. Bush had nominated 155.
Trump: “Despite so many false statements and lies, total and complete vindication.” — tweet Friday
The Facts: Trump’s claim that he was cleared of wrongdoing by Comey’s testimony is groundless. Comey testified that the FBI investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign did not extend to Trump himself during the time Comey was leading the FBI.
That investigation continues, as do congressional inquiries. Sufficient questions were raised for the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel with wide-ranging powers of inquiry — work that is only recently underway.
Comey told Trump in multiple conversations that Trump was not being personally investigated and said the president implored him to make that public. Comey told senators he resisted those entreaties because the situation could change and if it did, that, too, would have to be announced.
The fired FBI chief repeatedly refused to say in the hearing Thursday whether he thought Trump had obstructed justice. Comey suggested that was a matter for the special counsel, Robert Mueller, to judge as he proceeds.
Trump: “Just yesterday we learned that one of the largest insurers is pulling out of Ohio. That could mean another 20,000 counties and 19,000 people will have no plan available to them.” — Speech in Cincinnati on Wednesday
The Facts: He was off by a factor of 1,000. According to a White House information sheet released with his remarks, the pullout of an insurer from the health insurance exchange in Ohio could leave people in 20 counties without choices in that market, not 20,000. Ohio has only 88 counties.
Trump: “Obamacare is in a total death spiral.” — Cincinnati speech
The Facts: That’s overstated. Although the insurance markets of Obama’s health care law are in trouble, they don’t appear to be in a “total death spiral.” Insurers have lost hundreds of millions of dollars and parts of the country are at risk of having no participating carriers on HealthCare.gov. But the turmoil appears to be concentrated in pockets, not nationwide, or “total.”
Any blame for the situation is shared by the Trump administration, whose actions are sowing uncertainty that’s contributing to higher premiums. The administration has failed to give a clear signal that it will continue to pay billions of dollars in subsidies that help reduce deductibles and copayments for low-income people. The lack of such assurances has been a major complaint from the insurance industry and from state regulators.
Trump, promising to leverage taxpayer money into $1 trillion in road, bridge and waterway improvements: “Taxpayers deserve the best results for their investment, and I will ensure that this is what they get. The last administration passed a stimulus package of which only a tiny 7% went to infrastructure, and much of that was just wasted money.” — Cincinnati speech
The Facts: Obama’s $787 billion package was not an infrastructure bill, but a catchall response to a deep recession, with public works projects as a significant part. More than one-third of it went to tax cuts. Medicaid spending and other help for health care made up the next largest component. Then came infrastructure, at about 13%, followed closely by education. The package mixed economic and social spending, helping states train displaced workers, for example, extending jobless benefits and assisting with low-income housing.
When the plan passed in February 2009, Trump praised its combination of tax cuts and spending programs, saying “I thought he did a terrific job.”
EPA chief Scott Pruitt, crediting Trump with creating almost 50,000 jobs “in the coal sector” since the fourth quarter of last year. “In the month of May alone, almost 7,000 jobs.” — NBC’s Meet the Press, June 4
The Facts: He’s wildly off base. Instead of adding almost 50,000 jobs in the last few months, coal mining accounted for a total of only 51,000 jobs nationally at the end of May. That’s only up about 400 jobs from the prior month, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Pruitt counted jobs in unrelated enterprises to get his botched total. His staff pointed to statistics encompassing seven months of job gains across the far broader mining sector. That includes not just coal but also oil and gas extraction, metal ore mining, stone quarrying and other jobs.
Pruitt, contending carbon dioxide is only one of many causes of man-made climate change: “It’s a cause like methane and water vapor and the rest.” — Meet the Press
The Facts: The overwhelming majority of climate scientists say carbon dioxide is by far the primary cause of global warming. The Nobel Prize-winning United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calculated that about 73% of the human-caused warming since 1750 is from carbon dioxide. Water vapor and methane contribute much smaller amounts.
A joint statement from the National Academy of Sciences and Royal Society in Britain said “human-induced increases in CO2 (carbon dioxide) concentrations have been the dominant influence on the long-term global surface temperature increase.”