In his first television interview since the midterm elections, President Donald Trump mounted an aggressive defense of his pick for acting attorney general and repeated some of his favorite misleading attacks against the Russia investigation.
Fox News anchor Chris Wallace pressed Trump on his decision to appoint Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general, replacing the beleaguered Jeff Sessions. And he got the President to divulge new details about the written answers he has prepared for special counsel Robert Mueller.
Throughout the nearly 30-minute interview, which aired on Sunday, Trump made a series of statements that require fact-checking or additional context. Here are five key examples.
Trump says he didn’t know Whitaker’s anti-Mueller views
WALLACE: You have already made at least one big change, naming Matt Whitaker as your acting – attorney general.
WALLACE: He has a long record of speaking out against the Special Counsel and his probe… Did you know, before you appointed him, that he had that record and was so critical of Robert Mueller?
TRUMP: I did not know that. I did not know he took views on the Mueller investigation as such.
With this answer, Trump drew a line in the sand, stating unequivocally that he never knew about Whitaker’s well-documented public criticism of Mueller and his ongoing investigation. This denial is difficult to take at face value. The entire reason Trump spent more than a year lashing out at Sessions was over his decision to recuse himself from the Russia probe. It’s hard to imagine that, given how much vitriol he spewed at Sessions over his recusal, Trump wouldn’t make sure his new attorney general shared his views on Mueller.
On top of that, CNN previously reported that people close to Whitaker advised him that he could draw Trump’s attention by ramping up his television appearances. In 2017, Whitaker was a CNN legal contributor, and criticized Mueller on CNN programming, before he joined the Justice Department. It’s unclear whether this press strategy worked – but Trump is an avid consumer of CNN and cable news.
Also, Trump’s response could come into play in the future if House Democrats, who are already scrutinizing Whitaker, subpoena Whitaker to testify under oath about his appointment to the top job.
Trump whitewashed Whitaker’s attacks against Mueller
WALLACE: And when you found that out?
TRUMP: I don’t think it had any effect. If you look at those statements – those statements that can – they really can be viewed really either way, but I don’t think will have anything…
Trump claimed that Whitaker’s past statements about Mueller “can be viewed really either way.” Which statements is the President reading? It’s difficult to look at Whitaker’s comments, either individually or in total, as anything other than strong and consistent opposition to the Mueller investigation.
With this misleading claim, Trump is painting Whitaker as an even-handed overseer for Mueller. This whitewashes Whitaker’s comments, which were solidly in the anti-Mueller camp.
He shared an article that called on Trump not to cooperate with the “Mueller lynch mob.” And he dismissed the notorious Trump Tower meeting as an ordinary political move— despite the consensus that such a meeting with foreign citizens would be anything but routine.
Whitaker has echoed Trump’s oft-repeated talking points: there was no collusion and no obstruction. And in a CNN op-ed last year, Whitaker publicly urged Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to block Mueller from investigating Trump’s personal finances.
Trump brought back the Peter Strzok conspiracy
TRUMP: From the day I announced. I was looked at as a candidate with nothing, no proof, with phony people like McCabe and Strzok and his lover – you had Lisa Page, his lover. These people were looking at me, they wanted an insurance policy just in case I won or Hillary lost, and this was the insurance policy.
Trump resurrected one of his favorite attacks against what he calls the “deep state,” criticizing former FBI agent Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, who was an FBI lawyer. The now-infamous duo was involved in an extramarital affair and were both involved in the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails and, to a lesser degree, the early stages of the Russia investigation.
During their affair in 2016, Strzok and Page texted on government phones, and many of those messages have since been publicly released by House Republicans. One of those messages mentioned an “insurance policy” while alluding to the possibility Trump would become president.
Trump and his allies claimed this is a smoking gun, proving that anti-Trump forces in the FBI hatched a plan to falsely launch the Russia investigation and undermine Trump if he ever won.
The Department of Justice’s internal watchdog did an investigation and didn’t find any evidence supporting the anti-Trump conspiracy. The 568-page report also provided Strzok’s explanation of the “insurance policy” text: He was saying that the FBI should aggressively probe early hints of Trump-Russia collusion, even though Trump trailed in the polls and seemed unlikely to win.
Trump claims he wrote his answers to Mueller
WALLACE: Your team is preparing written answers to questions about –
TRUMP: No, no, no, not my team. I’m preparing written answers. My – I – I’m the one that does the answering.
Yes, are they writing them out?
TRUMP: Yeah. They’re writing what I tell them to write.
CNN reported that Trump spent much of last week working with his lawyers on Mueller’s questions. And in the Fox News interview, Trump claimed that he personally dictated the responses. There’s no way to check this without seeing the answers, and they are still secret.
But we already have some insight into how Trump might answer Mueller’s questions if given the chance, thanks to Bob Woodward’s bombshell book “Fear: Trump in the White House.”
In the book, Woodward describes how Trump’s then-lawyer John Dowd sat the President down for a practice-run, to answer questions he might get during an in-person interview with Mueller. Woodward reported that the sessions turned into a disaster, with Trump launching into a verbal assault against former FBI Director James Comey and repeating several falsehoods.
Trump points to Article II as obstruction defense
TRUMP: Well there was no obstruction of justice.
WALLACE: I – I’m – let me – if i might, sir, just ask—
TRUMP: I think they’d probably agree with me.
WALLACE: If I may ask the question—
TRUMP: And all you have to do is look at Article II.
Asked by Wallace if the answers he’s submitting to Mueller address obstruction of justice, Trump interjects to say there was no obstruction of justice, adding, “All you have to do is look at Article II.”
Trump is referencing Article II of the US Constitution, and echoing a theory that his lawyers put forward earlier this year. CNN has reported that Trump’s lawyers believe he didn’t obstruct justice by firing FBI Director James Comey in May 2017 because he can fire anyone he wants thanks to his Article II powers. They detailed this legal argument in a letter to Mueller sent in January, according to The New York Times.
The letter represents the view of Trump’s lawyers on this question, not the final, litigated answer. This is part of an underlying theory from Trump’s legal team that he has extraordinary powers as the President, including that executive privilege prevents him from answering questions about the transition period. It’s worth pointing out that these legal theories have not been fully-tested in the courts.