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AP FACT CHECK: Trump’s exaggerations about the Russia probe

April 1, 2019
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President Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., Thursday, March 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
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President Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., Thursday, March 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump is taking his interpretation of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation well beyond the facts.

He says he’s been fully exonerated based on a four-page summary of Mueller’s nearly 400-page report and is casting himself as a victim of illegal practices by the FBI because the agency investigated him in the first place.

But Trump is overstating his case. The FBI has legal grounds to open a probe if investigators have information they believe could lead them to a crime, even if one is not ultimately found. And the summary released by Attorney General William Barr says Mueller did not reach a conclusion about whether Trump obstructed justice.

Nor was the Russia probe hatched by Democrats, as Trump asserts. He often cites a so-called dossier funded by the Democratic Party, but the probe’s origins in fact were based on other evidence.

Trump’s claims came in a week of plentiful exaggerations and misstatements, seen most prominently in a speech to Michigan supporters in which he sought credit for all manner of things, including money to clean up the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative actually was already getting that money ; Trump had proposed slashing it.

Meanwhile, Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke misstated the length of U.S. involvement in the Iraq war.

A look at the political rhetoric and the facts:

RUSSIA INVESTIGATION

TRUMP: “People were hurt so badly, so badly. Their lives have been ruined and over — you know, over something that should have never taken place, an investigation that should have never happened. There was no crime, as you know. You’re only allowed to do this legally if there is a crime. There was no crime.” — Fox News interview Wednesday.

THE FACTS: Trump is wrong to suggest that the FBI acted illegally by investigating him. The FBI does not need to know if, or have evidence that, a crime occurred before it begins an investigation.

In fact, many investigations that are properly conducted ultimately don’t find evidence of any crime. The FBI is empowered to open an investigation if there’s information it has received or uncovered that leads the bureau to think it might encounter a crime. Apart from that, the investigation into the Trump campaign was initially a counterintelligence investigation rather than a strictly criminal one, as agents sought to understand whether and why Russia was meddling in the 2016 election.

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TRUMP: “The Russia witch hunt was a plan by those who lost the election to try and illegally regain power by framing innocent Americans. Many of them, they suffered, with an elaborate hoax.” — rally Thursday in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

THE FACTS: He falsely suggests that the Russia investigation was started by Democrats after losing the 2016 election.

Trump typically points to a dossier of anti-Trump research financed by the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton’s campaign, which he incorrectly claims was the basis for the Russia probe. The research that was ultimately compiled into the dossier was initially financed by anti-Trump conservatives, and later by the Democrats.

The FBI’s investigation actually began months before it received the dossier.

Last year, the Republican-controlled House Intelligence Committee found the Russia investigation was initiated after the FBI received information related to Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, not the dossier. Trump praised the committee’s final report at the time.

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TRUMP: “Everybody is asking how the phony and fraudulent investigation of the No Collusion, No Obstruction Trump Campaign began.” — tweet Sunday.

TRUMP: “After three years of lies and smears and slander, the Russia hoax is finally dead. The collusion delusion is over. The special counsel completed its report and found no collusion and no obstruction. ...Total exoneration, complete vindication.” — Michigan rally.

THE FACTS: Mueller did not vindicate Trump in “total” in the Russia probe, explicitly declining to clear him of obstruction.

Mueller’s exact words in the report, as quoted by Barr, say: “While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

The summary of principal conclusions by Barr notes Mueller did not “draw a conclusion — one way or the other — as to whether the examined conduct constituted obstruction,” but rather set out evidence for both sides, leaving the question unanswered of whether Trump obstructed justice. Barr wrote in the summary that ultimately he decided as attorney general that the evidence developed by Mueller was “not sufficient” to establish, for the purposes of prosecution, that Trump committed obstruction.

Barr’s summary also notes that Mueller did not find that the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with Russia to tip the 2016 presidential election in Trump’s favor. To establish a crime, Mueller must generally meet a standard of proving an offense beyond a reasonable doubt. The summary did not clear the president of improper behavior regarding Russia but did not establish that “he was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference,” Mueller said in a passage from the report quoted by Barr.

The summary signed by Barr gave the bottom line only as he and his deputy saw it. Democrats are pushing for release of Mueller’s full report. Barr is expected to release a public version of the document in the coming weeks.

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TRUMP, speaking about allegations in a so-called dossier about contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign during the 2016 election: “It came out after the election and everybody had a big fat yawn. ...All of the sudden I hear, ’Were you involved with Russia? I say, ‘Russia? What the hell does Russia have to do with my campaign?’” — Michigan rally.

THE FACTS: Russia actually had plenty to do with Trump’s campaign.

According to U.S. intelligence agencies and lengthy indictments brought by Mueller’s team, Russia orchestrated a multipart influence campaign aimed at hurting Clinton’s candidacy, undermining American democracy and helping Trump get elected.

That effort included the hacking of the Democratic National Committee, Clinton’s campaign and other Democratic groups. Russian intelligence officers then coordinated the release of stolen emails and internal documents.

There were also plenty of people around Trump receptive to Russia’s help, though Mueller’s report ultimately did not find that those contacts amounted to a criminal conspiracy, according to Barr’s summary.

In the middle of the campaign, Donald Trump Jr. met at Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer thinking he would be getting “dirt” on Clinton. Trump Jr. agreed to the meeting, which included Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, despite it being described to him as part of a Russian government effort to help his father.

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TRUMP: “You look at all of the different things, Russia would’ve much rather had Hillary than Donald Trump. I can tell you that right now.” — Fox News interview Wednesday.

THE FACTS: Not according to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Asked at a news conference with Trump in July whether he wanted Trump to win the 2016 election, Putin responded, “Yes, I did.” Putin said he favored Trump “because he talked about bringing the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal.”

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MIGRANT CHILDREN

TRUMP, on the care of migrant children apprehended at the border and the Dec. 8 death of Jakelin Caal Maquin, 7, of Guatemala: “I think that it’s been very well stated that we’ve done a fantastic job. ... The father gave the child no water for a long period of time - he actually admitted blame.” — to reporters Friday.

THE FACTS: That’s a misrepresentation of the circumstances behind the girl’s death as Trump seeks to steer any potential blame for it away from his administration.

An autopsy report released Friday found she died of a bacterial infection just more than a day after being apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol. The El Paso County Medical Examiner’s office said Jakelin experienced a “rapidly progressive infection” that led to the failure of multiple organs.

Neither the autopsy report, nor accounts at the time by Customs and Border Protection , spoke of dehydration. The Border Protection timeline on her case said she was checked for medical problems upon her apprehension and: “The initial screening revealed no evidence of health issues.” And through family lawyers, Nery Gilberto Caal Cuz said after his daughter’s death that he had made sure she had food and water as they traveled through Mexico. He did not say her death was his fault.

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IRAQ WAR

O’ROURKE: “We will ensure that this country does not start yet another war before every peaceful, diplomatic, nonviolent alternative is explored and pursued, and those wars that we ask our fellow Americans, these service members, to fight on our behalf, 17 years and counting in Afghanistan, 27 years and counting in Iraq, let’s bring these wars to a close.” — remarks Saturday in El Paso.

THE FACTS: The U.S. has not been fighting in a military conflict in Iraq for “27 years and counting.” The Iraq war started 16 years ago.

By O’Rourke’s count, U.S. involvement would date back to 1992, in an apparent reference to Operation Desert Storm, which ended in February 1991. President George H.W. Bush launched that operation in response to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Bush declared a ceasefire in 1991.

There was no ongoing military conflict after 1991. In 2003, President George W. Bush, the elder Bush’s son, authorized the invasion of Iraq by a U.S.-led coalition that toppled Saddam’s government. Later known as the “Iraq War,” that conflict was part of what the younger Bush described as a U.S. war against terrorism following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

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GREAT LAKES

TRUMP: “I support the Great Lakes. Always have. They are beautiful. They are big, very deep, record deepness, right? And I’m going to get, in honor of my friends, full funding of $300 million for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which you have been trying to get for over 30 years. So we will get it done.” — Michigan rally.

THE FACTS: Trump’s recent budget proposal sought to cut federal financing of that program by 90 percent. His comment actually meant that his administration would — presumably — give up its efforts over the last few years to cut the program, which has been receiving about $300 million a year since 2010.

His assertion that this money has eluded supporters of the lakes for three decades is wrong.

The program is popular with lawmakers from both parties and it was unlikely that the Trump cut would prevail.

Also, the Great Lakes are not the world’s deepest, or even among the 20 deepest .

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SPECIAL OLYMPICS

TRUMP: “I have overridden my people. We’re funding the Special Olympics.” — remarks to reporters Thursday.

THE FACTS: In this instance, unlike in the Great Lakes matter, Trump is acknowledging that it was his administration that had proposed to cut the money, though by blaming “my people” he did not take direct responsibility.

In any event, spending is up to Congress, not him. What he means is that the White House is dropping its budget proposal to deny federal money for the games.

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HEALTH CARE

TRUMP: “We will always protect patients with pre-existing conditions, always.” — Michigan rally.

THE FACTS: He’s not protecting health coverage for patients with pre-existing medical conditions. In fact, the Trump administration is pressing in court for full repeal of the Affordable Care Act — including provisions that protect people with pre-existing conditions from health insurance discrimination.

Trump and other Republicans say they’ll have a plan to preserve those safeguards, but the White House has provided no details. And it’s a stretch to think they could get a Republicans-only plan passed through Congress with the House under Democratic control.

President Barack Obama’s health care law requires insurers to take all applicants, regardless of medical history, and patients with health problems pay the same standard premiums as healthy ones. Bills supported in 2017 by Trump and congressional Republicans to repeal the law could have pushed up costs for people with pre-existing conditions.

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TRUMP: “The Republican Party will become the party of great health care. ... Republicans want you to have an affordable plan that’s just right for you.” — Michigan rally.

TRUMP: “If the Supreme Court rules that Obamacare is out, we will have a plan that’s far better than Obamacare.” — remarks Wednesday to reporters.

THE FACTS: Republicans may aspire to great health care but they don’t have a comprehensive plan for it. And there’s no indication that the White House, executive branch agencies like Health and Human Services, and Republicans in Congress are working on one.

Trump’s recent budget called for repealing “Obamacare” and setting hard limits on federal spending for Medicaid, which covers low-income people. Some Republicans argue that would be better, because the federal government would create a new program of health care grants to states. But when the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office analyzed similar proposals a couple of years ago, it estimated such changes would result in deep coverage losses, not to mention weaker insurance protections for people with pre-existing medical conditions.

Trump’s budget also called for hundreds of billions of dollars in Medicare cuts to hospitals and other service providers, a nonstarter with lawmakers in Congress worried about re-election next year.

The Supreme Court has upheld the health care law twice in previous challenges. The five justices who first upheld it in 2012 are still on the court.

Congressional Republicans are generally trying to steer away from Obamacare spats. Some are trying to focus on areas where they might find common ground with Democrats and the president, such as reducing prescription drug costs.

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AUTOS

TRUMP: “We are bringing a lot of those car companies back. ... They are pouring back in.” —Michigan rally.

TRUMP: “We’re opening up car plants in Michigan again for the first time in decades. They’re coming in, really pouring in. ... And this has been happening pretty much since I’ve been president. It’s really amazing what’s going on ... We’ve brought back so much industry, so many car companies to Michigan, so we’re very happy.” — remarks Thursday while departing for Michigan.

THE FACTS: There is very little truth in those remarks.

The only automaker announcing plans to reopen a plant in Michigan is Fiat Chrysler, which is restarting an old engine plant to build three-row SUVs. It’s been planning to do so since before Trump was elected. GM is even closing two Detroit-area factories: one that builds cars and another that builds transmissions.

Automakers have made announcements about new models being built in the state, but no other factories have been reopened. Ford stopped building the Focus compact car in the Detroit suburb of Wayne last year, but it’s being replaced by the manufacture of a small pickup and a new SUV. That announcement was made in December 2016, before Trump took office.

GM, meantime, is closing factories in Ohio and Maryland.

Trump can plausibly claim that his policies have encouraged some activity in the domestic auto industry. Corporate tax cuts freed more money for investment, and potential tariff increases on imported vehicles are an incentive to build in the U.S.

But automakers have not been “pouring in” at all, as he persistently claims, and when expansion does happen, it’s not all because of him.

Fiat Chrysler has been planning the SUVs for several years and has been looking at expansion in the Detroit area, where it has unused building space and an abundant, trainable automotive labor force.

Normally it takes at least three years for an automaker to plan a new vehicle, which is the case with the three-row Jeep Grand Cherokee and the larger Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer SUVs that will fill the restarting Detroit-area plant and an existing one. Several years ago then-CEO Sergio Marchionne said the Wagoneer would be built in the Detroit area.

Detroit automakers usually build larger vehicles in the U.S. because the profit margins are high enough to cover the higher wages paid there versus Mexico or another lower-cost country.

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IMMIGRATION

TRUMP, on diversity visas: “They are giving us their worst people.” — Michigan rally.

THE FACTS: That’s false.

The diversity visa lottery program is run by the U.S. government, not foreign governments. Other countries do not get to sort through their populations looking for bad apples to put in for export to the U.S. Citizens of qualifying countries are the ones who decide to bid for visas under the program. Trump routinely blames foreign states.

The program requires applicants to have completed a high school education or have at least two years of experience in the last five years in a selection of fields. Out of that pool of people from certain countries who meet those conditions, the State Department randomly selects a much smaller pool of winners. Not all winners will have visas ultimately approved, because they still must compete for a smaller number of slots by getting their applications in quickly. Those who are ultimately offered visas still need to go through background checks, like other immigrants.

The lottery is extended to citizens of most countries, except about 20. The primary goal is to diversify the immigrant population by creating slots for underrepresented parts of the world.

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JOBS

TRUMP: “We have created, since my election, 5.5 million new jobs. Nobody would have believed that was possible.” — Michigan rally.

THE FACTS: His number is about right, but he’s counting jobs created before he became president. And the progress does not defy belief. The economy created about 6 million jobs in the roughly two years before the election, then again in the roughly two years after.

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VETERANS

TRUMP: “They’ve been trying to get VA Choice for over 40 years. Couldn’t do it. I got it. We signed it six months ago.” — Michigan rally.

THE FACTS: Not true. He’s not the first president in 40 years to get Congress to pass a private-sector health program for veterans; he expanded it. Congress first approved the program in 2014 during the Obama administration. The program currently allows veterans to see doctors outside the VA system if they must wait more than 30 days for an appointment or drive more than 40 miles (65 kilometers) to a VA facility.

Now, starting in June, they are to have that option for a private doctor if their VA wait is only 20 days (28 for specialty care) or their drive is only 30 minutes.

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TRUMP: “Instead of waiting online for one day, one week, two months ...now they go outside, they see a private doctor, we pay the bill, they get better quickly.” — Michigan rally.

THE FACTS: Also not right. Veterans still must wait for weeks before they can get private care outside the VA system.

And the expanded Choice eligibility may do little to provide immediate help. That’s because veterans often must wait even longer for an appointment in the private sector. Last year, then-Secretary David Shulkin said VA care is “often 40 percent better in terms of wait times” compared with the private sector. In 2018, 34 percent of all VA appointments were with outside physicians, down from 36 percent in 2017.

At a hearing Tuesday, the top health official at VA, Dr. Richard Stone, described the start of the expanded Choice program to “almost be a non-event,” in part because wait times in the private sector are typically longer than at VA.

The VA also must resolve long-term financing because of congressional budget caps after the White House opposed new money to pay for the program. As a result, lawmakers could be forced later this year to limit the program or slash core VA or other domestic programs.

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Associated Press writers Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Chad Day in Washington and Tom Krisher in Detroit contributed to this report.

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