President Donald Trump was in a combative mood during an Oval Office meeting and an East Room press conference with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö on Wednesday afternoon, ranting about the whistleblower complaint against him, Democrats and a new book about his immigration policy.
Trump made significant false claims in both settings.
Trump was incensed about a New York Times article adapted from a new book, “Border Wars: Inside Trump’s Assault on Immigration,” that was co-authored by two Times journalists. The article and book said that Trump had proposed shooting migrants in the legs, reinforcing a border wall with a “water-filled trench, stocked with snakes or alligators,” electrifying the whole wall and topping it with spikes that could pierce human flesh.
Trump denied the Times report, saying he had never said such things. And then he attacked … The Washington Post.
“But my comms people came to me and they said, ‘Sir, there’s a book or something being written. It’s written by Washington Post people, so you know it’s inaccurate. You know it’s probably a fraud,’ ” Trump said.
He continued: “I said, ‘Well obviously it’s fake because almost everything The Washington Post does is fake. It’s a fake newspaper. It’s owned by a rich guy [Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos] for the purposes of giving him power in Washington. It’s really, I mean, it’s a lobbyist. I call it the lobbyist Washington Post for Amazon.”
The Post had nothing to do with the book or article.
Trump described his July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky – in which he asked Zelensky to investigate potential election opponent Joe Biden and investigate a discredited theory related to Democrats, computer servers and the 2016 election – as “perfect” and “nice.”
Trump then said: “The whistleblower wrote not that conversation. He wrote a vicious conversation. In other words, he either got it totally wrong, made it up, or the person giving the information to the whistleblower was dishonest. And this country has to find out who that person was, because that person’s a spy, in my opinion.”
The whistleblower’s account of the call was far from “totally wrong.” In fact, the whistleblower’s three primary allegations about the call were correct or very close, a rough transcript released by Trump himself showed. The whistleblower had said that Trump “pressured” Zelensky to investigate Biden and his son Hunter Biden, to help in locating Democratic computer servers and to speak with Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr.
Trump can argue that he was making friendly requests, not applying pressure, but he did make all three requests.
The whistleblower also alleged that Trump suggested Zelensky might want to keep the country’s prosecutor general, Yuriy Lutsenko, on the job. The rough transcript does not show Trump saying this.
We won’t fact-check Trump’s claim that the whistleblower’s sources qualify as spies, since this is an opinion.
It’s worth noting a few things, though: The whistleblower complaint cites Trump’s own “White House officials” as sources. Federal whistleblower law is intended to allow employees to expose wrongdoing without suffering adverse consequences. And not all of the whistleblower’s allegations came from information gleaned from others.
According to a statement from Michael Atkinson, the Trump-appointed inspector general of the intelligence community, the whistleblower had “direct knowledge of certain alleged conduct.”
So while the whistleblower got the mostly accurate information about the call secondhand – from “White House officials who had direct knowledge of the call,” according to the whistleblower complaint – it’s not true that the whole complaint relies on secondhand information, as Trump alleged on Tuesday.
The call itself
Trump said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina had told him that he was “nice” on the call. Graham, he said, told him, “You never asked him for anything.”
We can’t fact-check how nice or not-nice Trump was to Zelensky, but it’s flat false that he never asked Zelensky for anything. Again, Trump asked him to look into Biden and the situation with the server and to speak with Giuliani and Barr. In fact, prior to launching into the request about the server, Trump said, “I would like you to do us a favor though.”
“There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great,” Trump said at one point in the call, the rough transcript shows.
“Rudy very much knows what’s happening and he is a very capable guy. If you could speak to him that would be great,” he said at another.
“Whatever you can do, it’s very important that you do it if that’s possible,” he said after talking about the server and criticizing former special counsel Robert Mueller.
Rep. Adam Schiff and ‘treason’
Trump again lambasted the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee for his rendition of Trump’s July phone call with the President of Ukraine.
“And frankly, they should look at him for treason because he is making up the words of the President of the United States – not only words but the meaning – and it’s a disgrace. It should not be allowed to happen,” Trump said. He also said, “It should be criminal, it should be treasonous.”
We have explained how Schiff’s version of the call, which the California Democrat claimed was partly a “parody,” was confusing and sometimes exaggerated – though Schiff did say that he was providing the “essence” of the call, not a verbatim recitation.
Regardless, none of this is anything close to “treason,” a word with an actual, narrow definition in the Constitution: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”
And none of this is illegal at all. As we explained in this fact check, the Constitution has a clause that protects members of Congress from legal consequences for things they say in the course of official congressional proceedings.
Shortly before the press conference, the New York Times published a report that Schiff knew about the whistleblower’s concerns before the official complaint was filed.
Asked about his reaction to this news, Trump said, “I think it’s a scandal he knew before. I’d go a step further. I think he probably helped write it,” adding that he thought this was “a big story.” Later, Trump claimed outright that Schiff “knew long before and helped write it, too.”
When asked by CNN if Schiff or the House panel helped with the complaint in any way, the whistleblower’s attorney, Mark Zaid, said, “Absolutely not.”
Patrick Boland, a spokesman for Schiff, confirmed that the whistleblower contacted the committee for guidance, “like other whistleblowers have done before,” but insisted the committee did not see the complaint in advance.
Following Trump’s comments, the New York Times clarified that “there is no evidence” that Schiff helped the whistleblower write the complaint.
The Times story reports the whistleblower went to a committee aide because they were concerned about how the initial process was being handled in the executive branch. There’s no indication that the procedure for handling these kinds of complaints went awry.
An ‘exact transcript’
Trump claimed that the document released by the White House is an “exact transcript” of his call with Zelensky.
“Word for word, comma for comma, done by people that do it for a living – and we had an exact transcript,” he said.
It is not an exact transcript. We know this because the document itself says so, in a footnote on the first page.
“A Memorandum of a Telephone Conversation (TELCON) is not a verbatim transcript of a discussion. The text in this document records the notes and recollections of Situation Room Duty officers and NSC policy staff assigned to listen and memorialize the conversation in written form as the conversation takes place. A number of factors can affect the accuracy of the record, including poor telecommunications connections and variations in accent and/or interpretation,” the note says.
‘Seven or eight times’
Trump said of the whistleblower report: “The whistleblower report – didn’t he say seven or eight times I said, ‘quid pro quo.’ “
The whistleblower report did not even use the words “quid pro quo,” much less specify a number of times Trump allegedly said them.
Trump seemed to be confusing the whistleblower report with a Wall Street Journal article – published before the rough transcript was released – that said, “President Trump in a July phone call repeatedly pressured the president of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden’s son, according to people familiar with the matter, urging Volodymyr Zelensky about eight times to work with Rudy Giuliani on a probe that could hamper Mr. Trump’s potential 2020 opponent.”
The “eight” figure may not be correct. (Trump did not mention Biden’s son or Giuliani eight times in the rough transcript – but it is not an exact transcript, and ABC News counted eight times that Trump mentioned that he made some sort of request of Zelensky.) Regardless, the figure is not from the whistleblower report.
A letter from Democratic senators
Trump made another inaccurate reference to a letter Democratic senators wrote to Ukraine’s prosecutor general in 2018, saying they had said, “you’re going to do this or you’re not going to get money.”
As we explained at length here, the Democrats’ letter expressed concern about a New York Times report that Ukraine had, to avoid Trump’s wrath, froze four investigations into former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and stopped cooperating with the Mueller investigation.
The senators urged Ukraine to reverse course if the report was correct. But they never made a threat to deny money to Ukraine if the country didn’t do as they asked.
US aid to Ukraine
Avoiding a direct answer to a question on what it was he wanted Zelensky to do regarding the Bidens, Trump complained again of other countries’ alleged lack of assistance to Ukraine, singling out European countries in particular. He said, “Why are we the only one that give the big money to the Ukraine?”
“Big money” is subjective. But European countries have given hundreds of millions in assistance to Ukraine over the last five years, as CNN reported here. A European Union spokesperson said the total is $16.4 billion including “grants and loans from different sources/instruments within the EU budget and European Financial Institutions.”
Trump and subpoenas
Trump was asked if he would cooperate with subpoenas from House committees leading the impeachment inquiry. “Well I always cooperate,” Trump said.
Trump has certainly not always cooperated with congressional subpoenas. He said in April: “Well, we’re fighting all the subpoenas. Look, these aren’t like impartial people.”
That month, he sued to stop Democrats from using a subpoena to obtain his financial records from an accounting firm he had used.
Top officials in his administration have defied congressional subpoenas. After ignoring a subpoena to attend a hearing before the House oversight committee, White House senior counselor Kellyanne Conway told Fox News in July that “there’s a long-standing tradition to claim immunity and not have people like me testify.”
White House officials, including former White House Counsel Don McGahn, have defied congressional subpoenas relating to the investigation by former special counsel Robert Mueller.
This story has been updated.