Monday, June 26, 2017

AP FACT CHECK: Whom to believe, Trump or his lawyer?

By on June 19, 2017

President Donald Trump speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, June 15, 2017, during an event on Apprenticeship and Workforce of Tomorrow initiatives. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump and one of his personal lawyers have contradicted each other over whether the president is under investigation by the special counsel probing Russians’ meddling in the 2016 election and possible links with the Trump campaign.

A look at recent statements by Trump, lawyer Jay Sekulow and Vice President Mike Pence on the Russia investigation and a variety of other matters:

TRUMP tweet Friday: “I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt.”

THE FACTS: This apparent slap at Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, is at odds with Trump’s own account of how James Comey was fired. Trump said previously that a memo from Rosenstein recommending the FBI director’s termination didn’t matter. “Regardless of the recommendation, I was going to fire Comey,” he told NBC News in early May.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions testified to Congress that Trump wanted a memo laying out the case for firing Comey. But the president took sole responsibility for doing it, at least until he seemed to try to shift it Friday to the deputy.

It’s also an oversimplification to say he’s being investigated for firing Comey. Presidents have the authority to get rid of the FBI director. The issue is whether Trump criminally obstructed justice.

By Comey’s account, the president leaned on him to back off the FBI’s investigation of his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and fired him three months later as a way to alter the course of a broader probe into potential coordination between Russia and associates of the Trump campaign. Trump’s tweet seems to confirm that his interactions with Comey now are part of the special counsel’s expanding investigation – except that his own lawyer says that is not so.

SEKULOW, on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday: “The president is not a subject or target of an investigation.”

THE FACTS: You can decide whether to believe the lawyer or the president and the multiple unidentified sources who told The Washington Post that the special counsel’s investigation had grown to include Trump.

Sekulow said Trump was merely reacting to the newspaper story, suggesting the president had no first-hand knowledge whether he was being investigated. Indeed Trump is known to react viscerally to what he sees on TV or reads in a paper. On the other hand, he can tap the vast information-gathering capabilities of the White House and administration.

SEKULOW, explaining on CNN why Trump did not dispute the Post’s story saying he was under investigation: “There’s a limitation on Twitter, as we all know.”

TRUMP: When Trump wants to say more on a subject than one tweet’s 140-character content limit allows, he simply does what other Twitter users do: He writes more tweets about it. There’s no limitation on doing that.

TRUMP tweet Sunday: “The new Rasmussen Poll, one of the most accurate in the 2016 Election, just out with a Trump 50% Approval Rating. That’s higher than O’s #’s!”

THE FACTS: No other pollster has released a recent survey putting Trump’s approval rating anywhere close to 50 percent. Most other estimates are near or below 40 percent. Rasmussen’s final 2016 poll found Hillary Clinton up about 2 points nationally. That’s very close to the final popular vote margin, but other polls conducted within the final two weeks before Election Day were also quite accurate on average.

Rasmussen’s methodology uses automated phone calls, which have a mixed track record of accuracy in election polling. Federal law prohibits automated phone calls to cell phones, so Rasmussen must supplement its main sample with online interviews to reach the more than half of Americans who do not have landline phones. The details of how that online sampling is done are not clear.

TRUMP tweet Friday: “After 7 months of investigations & committee hearings about my ‘collusion with the Russians,’ nobody has been able to show any proof. Sad!”

THE FACTS: The president once again shows a lack of understanding of how law-enforcement investigations work, or a willingness to misrepresent the process. He’s done this on several occasions.

Investigators follow evidence, interview witnesses and track down leads to assemble the most complete picture of events possible, then turn over their findings to prosecutors to assess whether a criminal case is warranted. Only if they decide to file charges and go to court is evidence shown.

The government’s investigation, begun by the FBI last summer, is far from that stage and is still growing.

TRUMP: “Effective immediately, I am canceling the previous administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba.” – remarks in Miami on Friday.

THE FACTS: Not so. He’s preserving most of the important elements of Barack Obama’s opening to the island.

Trump’s policy keeps a U.S. Embassy open and allows U.S. airlines and cruise ships to continue service to Cuba. Cuban-Americans can still send money to relatives and can still travel to the island without restriction. U.S. farmers can continue selling their crops to the Cuban government. The policy also allows Americans to continue patronizing state-run hotels and other businesses that are not directly linked with Cuba’s military and state-security services.

The policy does, though, restore a requirement for most American travelers visiting Cuba to be with tightly regulated tour groups. The Cuban government has traditionally steered those tour groups to state-run business, meaning the majority of American travelers to Cuba will probably no longer be able to patronize private restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts and taxi drivers.

TRUMP: “You see the unemployment rate is at a very, very low level. Job enthusiasm and manufacturing, business enthusiasm is at record levels; never been higher… We’ve got it going.” – remarks at a White House apprenticeship event Thursday.

THE FACTS: Trump has gone from “hoax” to hype on this statistic. Running for president, he took a swipe Aug. 8 at a just-released unemployment number, saying, “This 5 percent figure is one of the biggest hoaxes in modern American politics.” (The actual figure then was 4.9 percent.) Five months into his own presidency, the rate he now welcomes stands at 4.3 percent, arrived at by the same Bureau of Labor Statistics through the same methodology.

Through his campaign, Trump asserted the official jobless rate is phony because it leaves out millions who stopped looking for work. He vastly overstated that case, counting retired people and others who are choosing not to work as part of the problem. But now that a healthy official rate is reported under his watch, he grasps it as evidence of his success.

TRUMP: “Great success, including MS-13. They’re being thrown out in record numbers and rapidly. And they’re being depleted. They’ll all be gone pretty soon.” – remarks Monday at a segment of a Cabinet meeting opened to press.

THE FACTS: There’s no publicly available information to back up Trump’s claim that this violent gang is about to disappear.

Deportations are actually down slightly compared with the same time last year, as arrests of people caught crossing the Mexican border have dropped to historic lows. More than 100 MS-13 gang members have been arrested in recent weeks, though the government hasn’t said how many of those people have been deported.

In any event, deportations alone cannot eradicate MS-13, a homegrown gang with ties to El Salvador that includes U.S. citizens. The government has not said how many of the estimated 7,000 to 10,000 gang members are Americans, who cannot be “thrown out.” The group’s roots in the U.S. go back more than 20 years to Los Angeles.

The gang was in decline in Southern California long before Trump was elected.

TRUMP: “I recently returned from a trip overseas that included deals for more than $350 billion worth of military and economic investment in the United States. These deals will bring many thousands of jobs to our country and, in fact, will bring millions of jobs ultimately and help Saudi Arabia take a greater role in providing stability and security in that region.” – Cabinet meeting.

THE FACTS: Trump’s $350 billion figure includes hundreds of billions of dollars in aspirational deals with Saudi Arabia that have not been signed yet and could be revised or eliminated. When he visited Riyadh, agreements on more than $110 billion in foreign military sales were pledged, according to the State Department. But many of those – along with a significant amount of the $80 billion in announced commercial civilian sales – were memoranda of understanding or letters of intent and not sales contracts.

Arms sales make up the vast majority of Trump’s total, but those must be approved by the State Department and Congress. In addition, some of the business he’s claiming to have generated was agreed to during the Obama administration.

TRUMP: “I will say that never has there been a president – with few exceptions; in the case of FDR, he had a major Depression to handle – who’s passed more legislation, who’s done more things than what we’ve done, between the executive orders and the job-killing regulations that have been terminated. Many bills; I guess over 34 bills that Congress signed. A Supreme Court justice who’s going to be a great one. … We’ve achieved tremendous success.” – Cabinet meeting.

THE FACTS: He has little to show for his first five months in office, in concrete ways, other than the confirmation of a justice.

Trump’s two immediate predecessors, Obama and George W. Bush, accomplished more in their early months. Trump has achieved no major legislation. The bills he is counting up are little more than housekeeping measures – things like naming a courthouse and a VA health care center, appointing board of regents members, reauthorizing previous legislation. He has indeed been vigorous in signing executive orders, but in the main they have far less consequence than legislation requiring congressional passage.

Trump’s big agenda items, like his promised tax overhaul, have yet to pass or even reach Congress. His attempt to secure the borders from people from terrorism-prone regions is so far blocked by courts.

By contrast, Obama signed a $787 billion stimulus package into law in his first month, while also achieving a law expanding health care for children and the Lilly Ledbetter bill on equal pay for women in that time. Bush got off to a slower start, in part because he did not take office in a deep recession requiring quick action, as Obama had done. But by this point in his presidency, Bush had signed a huge tax cut into law.

TRUMP, on getting his presidential appointees cleared to start work: “That’s a very long process also, including ethics committee, which has become very difficult to deal with.” – Cabinet meeting.

THE FACTS: He means the Office of Government Ethics, not a committee, and it’s been moving faster on his nominations than it did under Obama. The office, which looks for ethical red flags among appointees, has been vetting them in an average of 26 days, compared with 32 days in Obama’s first year. This, despite the more complex financial entanglements and potential conflicts of interest of Trump’s picks.

If there’s any foot-dragging, it’s by Trump. As of June 9, the Trump administration had forwarded 331 nominees for ethics vetting, compared with 483 nominees in the same period under Obama. “We’re moving nominee reports faster during this transition than we did during the last transition, but we can’t review reports the White House hasn’t sent to us,” said Walter Shaub, director of the ethics office.

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE, visiting employees of the Health and Human Services Department on Tuesday: “I’m here to say thanks, but also to address the ongoing collapse of the Affordable Care Act, or as the president says more clearly, literally the ‘death spiral’ of Obamacare.”

THE FACTS: It’s certainly not in a literal death spiral. A figurative one? Even that seems premature.

To be sure, subsidized private insurance markets like HealthCare.gov have serious problems in many states. Premiums have gone up sharply and some major insurers have pulled out. About one-third of U.S. counties currently have only one insurer in the subsidized markets. Next year areas of Washington state, Ohio and Missouri face having no participating carrier, unless other insurers step in. More states could find themselves in that predicament.

But in other states, officials say the markets are working reasonably well.  And when they declare Obamacare careening toward death, Pence and Trump ignore the law’s other half – the Medicaid expansion that has helped bring the uninsured rate to a historic low.

PENCE: “Back when Obamacare was first passed, just over seven years ago, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that 23 million Americans would be covered by now. That’s the blue line on the far left. It quickly became apparent that this was farfetched – to put it mildly.” – visit to HHS.

THE FACTS: He – along with the chart he pointed to – omitted the estimated 12 million low-income people covered under Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. That’s the other arm of the coverage provided under Obama’s law.

It’s true that only 10.3 million people are enrolled this year in the subsidized health insurance markets like HealthCare.gov. That’s far short of the 23 million projected by the budget office for 2017. But together, those markets and the Medicaid expansion have reduced the number of uninsured by about 20 million people.

As for the health insurance markets, the Trump administration shares some of the blame for the turmoil. Insurers have complained that the failure of the White House to send a clear signal on the future of $7 billion in subsidies is driving up premiums and undermining confidence. Those subsidies help insurers reduce deductibles and copayments for people of modest incomes.

If Obamacare ultimately goes into a death spiral, the Trump administration’s dismissive approach will be seen by many as part of the reason.

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