AP FACT CHECK: Prosecutors' filings do not exonerate Trump
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is in denial when it comes to the Russia investigation and other scandals besieging him.
The president insists he's been fully vindicated by court filings released Friday that lay out the level of cooperation from two of his former top advisers, whom prosecutors have accused of lying to federal investigators or Congress. In fact, Trump's Justice Department puts him in even greater legal jeopardy by directly implicating him in an illegal scheme involving hush money payments to a porn actress and a former Playboy model.
In comments over the weekend, Trump cites the filings in the cases involving his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, and onetime campaign chairman Paul Manafort, as proof that no collusion had been found in the special counsel's investigation. That's also not true. That probe into contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election is still ongoing, so the filings do not yet render a judgment on collusion.
The statements capped a week in which Trump also claimed without evidence that Paris protesters were chanting support for him, made questionable assertions about China trade and tariffs and derided U.S. weapons spending as crazy, despite earlier boasts about increasing the military budget.
Meanwhile, Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez skimmed over the facts when she suggested the Pentagon has a hidden pot of $21 trillion that could help pay for "Medicare for All."
A look at the claims and the reality:
TRUMP: "Totally clears the President. Thank you!" — tweet Friday.
THE FACTS: The court filings Friday are the first time that federal prosecutors directly connect Trump to a crime.
The violations stemmed from payments Cohen made to buy the silence of porn actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal during the 2016 presidential campaign. Both women alleged they had extramarital affairs with Trump, which the White House denies.
Prosecutors in New York, where Cohen pleaded guilty in August to campaign finance crimes in connection with those payments, said the lawyer "acted in coordination and at the direction" of Trump. Though Cohen had previously implicated Trump in the payments, the Justice Department is now linking Trump to the scheme and backing up Cohen's allegations.
It's unclear whether Trump will actually be charged with illegal activity, because Justice Department legal memos from 1973 and 2000 have suggested that a sitting president is immune from indictment and that criminal charges would undermine the commander in chief's ability to do the job. But it is possible Congress could use prosecutors' findings to start impeachment proceedings. There also would presumably be no bar against charging a president after he leaves the White House.
Federal law requires that any payments made "for the purposes of influencing" an election must be reported in campaign finance disclosures. Friday's filings make clear the payments were made to benefit Trump politically.
TRUMP: "On the Mueller situation, we're very happy with what we are reading because there was no collusion whatsoever. There never has been." — remarks to reporters Saturday.
TRUMP: "NO COLLUSION!" — tweet Saturday.
THE FACTS: Trump's incorrect to suggest the filings clear him of collusion. Part of an ongoing investigation, they do not yet draw a conclusion and instead lay out evidence of previously undisclosed contacts between Trump associates and Russian intermediaries.
In one of the filings, special counsel Robert Mueller details how Cohen spoke to a Russian in 2015 who "claimed to be a 'trusted person' in the Russian Federation who could offer the campaign 'political synergy' and 'synergy on a government level.'" The person repeatedly dangled a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying such a meeting could have a "phenomenal" impact "in a business dimension as well."
That was a reference to a proposed Moscow real estate deal that prosecutors say could have netted Trump's business hundreds of millions of dollars and would likely require assistance of the Russian government. Cohen admitted this month to lying to Congress by saying discussions about a Trump Tower in Moscow ended in January 2016 when in fact they stretched into that June, well into the presidential campaign.
Cohen said he never followed up on the proposed meeting, because he was working with a "different individual" with connections to the Russian government.
Cohen also told prosecutors he and Trump discussed a potential meeting with Putin on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in September 2015, shortly after Trump announced his candidacy for president.
In another filing Friday, prosecutors said Manafort lied about his contacts with Russia and Trump administration officials, including in 2018. Mueller's team cited Manafort's interactions with Konstantin Kilimnik, an associate who prosecutors say has ties to Russian intelligence. Mueller's team said they would be able to offer additional information at a hearing, such as the nature of Manafort's contacts with the Trump administration in 2018, to prove Manafort was lying.
Trump's attorneys last month turned over the president's written answers to Mueller's questions about his knowledge of any ties between his campaign and Russia. Mueller hasn't said when he will complete any report of his findings.
TRUMP: "The last thing I want is help from Russia on a campaign." — remarks Saturday.
THE FACTS: Actually, Trump did request Russia's help during the 2016 campaign.
In a July 27, 2016, speech, then-candidate Trump called on Russian hackers to find emails from Hillary Clinton, his Democratic opponent in the presidential campaign.
"Russia, if you're listening," Trump said, "I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing."
Hours later, the Main Intelligence Directorate in Moscow appeared to heed the call — targeting Clinton's personal office and hitting more than 70 other Clinton campaign accounts. That's according to a grand jury indictment in July charging 12 Russian military intelligence officers with hacking into the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party as part of a sweeping conspiracy by the Kremlin to meddle in the 2016 U.S. election.
That indictment by Mueller says July 27 was the first time Clinton's personal office was targeted.
The attempt to penetrate Clinton's campaign began March 10, 2016, and hit a significant success on March 19 when the Russian intelligence officers busted open the email account of John Podesta, Clinton's campaign chairman, an AP investigation last year found.
They "phished" intensively and repetitively. Throughout at least March and April there were repeated efforts to break into about 120 Democratic National Committee, Clinton and left-leaning activists' accounts across the country.
Then they brought Clinton's personal office into their scope, the indictment says — the very evening Trump appeared to beckon Russians to do just that.
TRUMP: "The Paris Agreement isn't working out so well for Paris. Protests and riots all over France. People do not want to pay large sums of money, much to third world countries (that are questionably run), in order to maybe protect the environment. Chanting 'We Want Trump! Love France." — tweet Saturday.
THE FACTS: Neither Associated Press journalists covering protests in the city nor any French television networks have shown evidence that supporters were chanting any slogans in support of Trump. The protests that began as a revolt against a gas tax increase have turned increasingly violent and France imposed exceptional security measures Saturday to prevent a repeat of rioting a week ago.
TRUMP: "We quickly moved the American embassy to Jerusalem and we got it built."— remarks Thursday at Hanukkah event.
THE FACTS: Nothing's been built yet. The Trump administration designated an existing U.S. consular facility in Jerusalem for the U.S. Embassy, retrofitting some offices and holding a big dedication ceremony in May. The U.S. has yet to identify a permanent site for the new embassy, a process that is expected to take years. The State Department has estimated that constructing a new embassy would cost more than $500 million.
TRUMP: "China has agreed to reduce and remove tariffs on cars coming into China from the U.S. Currently the tariff is 40%." — tweet on Dec. 2.
THE FACTS: A week later, it's still not clear if this will happen. When asked about the matter, Kudlow would only say that he hoped China would remove its tariffs on U.S. autos. "We don't yet have a specific agreement on that, but I will just tell you, as an involved participant, we expect those tariffs to go to zero," he told reporters last Monday. Pressed again Tuesday, Kudlow told "Fox and Friends" that he expected China to move quickly on removing the tariffs "if they're serious about this."
"I think it's coming, OK?" he said. "It hasn't been signed and sealed and delivered yet."
The White House's confusing and conflicting words have left Wall Street skeptical.
"It doesn't seem like anything was actually agreed to at the dinner and White House officials are contorting themselves into pretzels to reconcile Trump's tweets (which seem if not completely fabricated then grossly exaggerated) with reality," JPMorgan told investors in a trading note.
On Thursday, a Chinese official said that China will "immediately implement the consensus reached by the two sides on farm products, cars and energy," but did not address the auto tariffs specifically or provide any additional details.
Trump has cast doubt on whether a firm agreement had been reached, tweeting that his administration will determine "whether or not a REAL deal with China is actually possible."
TRUMP: "I am a Tariff Man. When people or countries come in to raid the great wealth of our Nation, I want them to pay for the privilege of doing so. It will always be the best way to max out our economic power. We are right now taking in $billions in Tariffs. MAKE AMERICA RICH AGAIN." — tweet Tuesday.
THE FACTS: Trump seems to be claiming that tariffs are some kind of a membership fee for foreign companies to trade in the U.S. economy.
They're not. Tariffs are a tax, per Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution.
The costs of this tax are borne by U.S. consumers and businesses, often in the form of higher prices. Foreign companies may end up selling fewer goods and services if the United States imposes high tariffs. So they pay a price, too.
In some cases, the tariffs exist to protect industries that are vital for national security. Or, the tariffs exist to retaliate against the trade practices of other countries. Or, they might protect politically connected companies.
In the past, White House aides have insisted that Trump's tariffs are a negotiating ploy. Yet the president offered no such qualifications on Tuesday.
Tariffs are not seen as some easy way of generating massive wealth for an economically developed nation. After Trump announced steel and aluminum tariffs earlier this year, the University of Chicago asked leading academic economists in March whether Americans would be better off because of import taxes. Not a single economist surveyed said the country would be wealthier.
Nor do the budget numbers suggest they can come anywhere close to covering the costs of the federal government.
Trump is correct that tariffs did generate $41.3 billion in tax revenues last budget year, according to the Treasury Department. But to put that in perspective, the federal budget exceeds $4.1 trillion.
The taxes collected on imports were equal to about 1 percent of all federal spending.
OCASIO-CORTEZ: "$21 TRILLION of Pentagon financial transactions 'could not be traced, documented, or explained.' $21T in Pentagon accounting errors. Medicare for All costs (tilde)$32T. That means 66% of Medicare for All could have been funded already by the Pentagon. And that's before our premiums." — tweet Dec. 2.
THE FACTS: Ocasio-Cortez is generally correct to suggest that one way of paying for the huge cost of "Medicare for All" would be to cut spending elsewhere. But she is wrong to suggest that there's a pot of misspent defense dollars that could cover the health care expenses. The New York Democrat also misrepresents the findings of an academic study that found the $21 trillion in Pentagon errors to be accounting "adjustments," not a tally of actual money wasted.
The study by Mark Skidmore, an economist at Michigan State University and Catherine Austin Fitts, a former assistant secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, did find $21 trillion in Pentagon transactions from 1998 to 2015 that could not be verified. Their study is a cited in a Nation article retweeted in part by Ocasio-Cortez, even though that article makes clear that not "all of this $21 trillion was secret or misused funding ... the plugs are found on both the positive and the negative sides of the ledger, thus potentially netting each other out."
Total defense spending from 1998 to 2015 was $9 trillion. That means defunding the military entirely would only cover a small portion of the estimated $32 trillion cost over 10 years for the "Medicare for All" legislation by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. Ocasio-Cortez wrongly suggests that fixing Pentagon accounting errors would net 66 percent of costs.
"What she was referencing was the total number of transactions that happened with DoD — there's a lot of double and triple counting as money gets moved around in the department," said Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "All of that basically means is that those transactions don't have a full trail," akin to an employee who submits an expense report without providing all the receipts.
"Just because you don't have the proper audit trail for transactions doesn't mean that those transactions are fraudulent," Harrison said.
David Norquist, the Pentagon's comptroller, has attributed the accounting errors to the department's older bookkeeping "systems that do not automatically pass data from one to the other." He said in testimony to the House Armed Services Committee in January that the errors do not amount to a pot of lost money. "I wouldn't want the taxpayer to confuse that with the loss of something like a trillion dollars, it's not. That wouldn't be accurate," Norquist said.
TRUMP: "I am certain that, at some time in the future, President Xi and I, together with President Putin of Russia, will start talking about a meaningful halt to what has become a major and uncontrollable Arms Race. The U.S. spent 716 Billion Dollars this year. Crazy!" — tweet Dec. 3.
THE FACTS: His criticism of U.S. weapons spending as "crazy" vastly overstates the amount spent on the arms race. It also is a sudden change of tone from his previous boasts about increased military spending.
Trump's statement appeared to confuse the total Defense Department budget with America's investment in the missile defense systems and strategic nuclear weapons usually associated with the arms race. The Pentagon's budget for 2019 totals about $716 billion, but that includes everything from health care and pay for service members to the costs of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. The arms race is just a fraction of that amount, totaling about $10 billion this year for a wide range of missile defense and nuclear weapons programs.
Until recently, Trump has bragged about his increase in military spending, railing about what he claims is previous administrations' neglect of America's armed forces. He said his administration is "rebuilding our military." He has occasionally complained about specific programs such as Air Force One and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, but his criticism was leveled at the defense contractors and focused on demanding savings.
He has been far more supportive of the broader defense increases, and specifically has endorsed hikes for missile defense in line with a U.S. defense strategy that targets China and Russia as key adversaries.
TRUMP: "Could somebody please explain to the Democrats (we need their votes) that our Country losses (sic) 250 Billion Dollars a year on illegal immigration, not including the terrible drug flow. Top Border Security, including a Wall, is $25 Billion. Pays for itself in two months. Get it done!" — tweet Tuesday.
THE FACTS: He's inflating the cost of illegal immigration. Trump's numbers left even those sympathetic to the president's position scratching their heads.
"I'm not sure where the president got his numbers," said Dave Ray, a spokesman for the nonprofit group FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates for lower immigration numbers.
Neither the White House nor the Department of Homeland Security responded to questions about where the $250 billion estimate had come from.
The Heritage Foundation, for instance, estimated in 2013 that households headed by immigrants living in the U.S. illegally impose a net fiscal burden of around $54.5 billion per year.
Even Trump himself has contradicted the figure. During his 2016 campaign, Trump claimed that illegal immigration cost the country more than $113 billion a year — less than half the number he tweeted Tuesday.
That estimate appeared based on a paper by FAIR, which released an updated report in 2017 that claimed taxpayers "shell out approximately $134.9 billion to cover the costs incurred by the presence of more than 12.5 million illegal aliens, and about 4.2 million citizen children of illegal aliens" at the federal, state and local levels, with "a tax burden of approximately $8,075 per illegal alien family member and a total of $115,894,597,664."
The $116 million figure included services such as health care and education, as well as spending on agencies including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, minus the $19 billon the group concluded those who are living in the country illegally pay in taxes. But it also included costs associated with the children of those immigrants in its tally, even when they are U.S. citizens. The estimate was criticized for making broad generalizations and other major methodological flaws.
Associated Press writers Chad Day, Christopher Rugaber, Josh Boak, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Jill Colvin and Lolita Baldor in Washington and Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report.
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