WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s Twitter cannon roared over the weekend as the latest turn in the Russia investigation seemingly placed him on the defensive. He denied he had ever absolved Russia of meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, despite his plentiful record of voicing doubts on that question.
Resurrecting an old tale from the campaign, Trump also described a diplomatic transaction between the U.S. and Iran during the Obama years as a dark plot that should have been investigated by U.S. authorities. The transaction actually was money the U.S. owed to Iran from decades ago and one in a series of claims that were addressed by an international tribunal set up by both countries.
Trump’s rash of tweets followed an indictment released Friday charging 13 Russians with running a massive social media trolling campaign and field operations in the U.S. aimed in part at helping him defeat his 2016 Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. The case brought by special counsel Robert Mueller provided the most concrete evidence yet of Russian attempts to subvert the election.
Over the past week, Trump also weighed in on the economy and infrastructure in ways that did not always line up with reality. A look at some of Trump’s recent statements and how they stack up with the facts:
TRUMP: “I never said Russia did not meddle in the election, I said ‘it may be Russia, or China or another country or group, or it may be a 400 pound genius sitting in bed and playing with his computer.’ The Russian ‘hoax’ was that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia – it never did!” — tweet Sunday.
THE FACTS: On multiple occasions Trump has challenged the veracity of the mounting evidence about Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. On Air Force One, during foreign travels in November, he was asked about a conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin: “How did you bring up the issue of election meddling? Did you ask him a question?”
Trump replied: “He just — every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that.’ And I believe — I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it. But he says, ‘I didn’t do that.’ I think he’s very insulted by it, if you want to know the truth.”
And in September, he tweeted: “The Russia hoax continues, now it’s ads on Facebook,” referring to the discovery that Russian entities had posted ads on Facebook critical of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and supportive of him.
Mostly, he has equivocated on the question of Russian interference, speaking at times as if he believes it happened and other times as if he does not, even as lawmakers, intelligence officials and some of his own aides say there is no doubt Russia meddled. He’s been consistent only in denying that his team colluded with Russia.
TRUMP: “Never gotten over the fact that Obama was able to send $1.7 Billion Dollars in CASH to Iran and nobody in Congress, the FBI or Justice called for an investigation!” — tweet Sunday.
THE FACTS: It’s not clear what there could be to investigate.
In the late 1970s the Iranian government, under the U.S.-backed shah, paid the U.S. $400 million for military equipment. The equipment was never delivered because in 1979, his government was overthrown and diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran ruptured. In 1981, both countries agreed on a commission at The Hague to rule on claims by each country for property and assets held by the other. Iran paid more than $2.5 billion to U.S. businesses and citizens to resolve claims.
In January 2016, the U.S. agreed to settle an Iranian claim, paying the $400 million and committing to follow up and pay $1.3 billion in interest, for a total of $1.7 billion. U.S. officials said they settled because they expected the tribunal to rule on the claim soon and assess higher interest. The Obama administration delivered the initial payment the same day Tehran agreed to release four American prisoners, and later acknowledged the cash was used as leverage until the Americans were allowed to leave.
TRUMP: “General McMaster forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians and that the only Collusion was between Russia and Crooked H, the DNC and the Dems. — tweet Saturday.
THE FACTS: H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, would have had no basis to say Russia failed to impact the U.S. election because that is an open question.
McMaster said the indictment provides “really incontrovertible” evidence of Russian malfeasance in the election. The indictment does not allege collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign and does not assert that Russia’s deeds tipped the election in Trump’s favour. But Mueller’s investigation continues and nothing is ruled out.
Trump tweeted Friday about his conviction that Russia had no impact and Vice-President Mike Pence said in an Axios interview days earlier that “it is the universal conclusion of our intelligence communities that none of those efforts had any impact on the outcome of the 2016 election.”
U.S. intelligence agencies, however, have reached no such conclusion.
This much is thought to be true: Russia is not known to have succeeded in manipulating voting systems or ballots. Officials said as much months ago. But since then, much more has been discovered about the Russian assault on Facebook, Twitter and Google as propagandists pushed fake or negative news to readers to deepen public discord and influence opinions on whom to vote for. Now the Mueller indictment adds voluminous detail to that understanding.
The extent to which such efforts may have motivated people to vote for Trump may be impossible to measure.
But Pence’s apparent equanimity on the subject was not shared by Trump’s director of national intelligence in testimony to senators Tuesday. “There should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts as successful,” Dan Coats said in warning that Moscow was already meddling in the 2018 midterms. Coats said Russians “upped their game” in the 2016 election, “took advantage, a sophisticated advantage, of social media” and interfered in “pervasive” fashion — a conclusion underscored by the criminal charges brought Friday.
TRUMP: “Black unemployment is at the lowest level in history. Hispanic unemployment is at the lowest level in recorded history, which is really something that’s so great.” — remarks to state and local officials at the White House on Feb. 12.
THE FACTS: Wrong on both counts. Trump was citing outdated numbers. Ten days earlier, the government reported the black jobless rate jumped nearly a percentage point to 7.7 per cent in January, higher than most of last year and barely below the 7.8 per cent of January 2017 when Trump took office. It indeed hit a record low of 6.8 per cent a month earlier.
Hispanic unemployment also rose in January, though marginally. The rate stood at 5 per cent, up from 4.9 per cent the month before and from the record low of 4.8 per cent seen in April 2006 and several months last year.
The next day, Trump accurately cast the record on black joblessness in the past tense: “We had the lowest African-American unemployment rate in the history of our country.”
Jobless figures for blacks and Hispanics can jump around from month to month, such that any record can be short-lived. The unemployment rate for whites is consistently much lower than for the other groups, now 3.5 per cent.
TRUMP: “I do have to say that we do have a pool of 100 million people, of which some of them — many of them — want to work; they want to have a job. A lot of them do better not working, frankly, under the laws. And people don’t like to talk about it. But you’re competing against government. And they have great potential. They sort of want to work, but they’re making less if they work than if they stay home and do other things. So we have to address that situation. That’s a big problem. But we have a pool of 100 million people, a lot of whom want to work.” — meeting with lawmakers Tuesday about trade.
THE FACTS: “Some of them” is true. But that’s not true for most.
Trump’s pool of 100 million (actually 95.7 million, according to the government) consists of all Americans 16 and older who are not working. Of them, only about 5.2 million say they want to be. The vast majority is made up of students 16 and over, the elderly and people who want to stay home to raise their children. That information comes from the same government survey used to calculate the unemployment rate.
The economy is already considered to be close to full employment, meaning it’s harder to find workers to fill new jobs — harder still if Trump succeeds in curbing immigration.
Few economists blame social programs keeping large numbers of people at home and out of work, as Trump appeared to do. Instead, recent economic research suggests opioid addiction is a key reason many Americans can’t get or keep jobs. And past episodes of widespread imprisonment are also a factor: Having a criminal conviction makes it hard for people to find work once they are out of jail.
TRUMP: “This will be a big week for Infrastructure. After so stupidly spending $7 trillion in the Middle East, it is now time to start investing in OUR Country!” — tweet Feb. 12.
TRUMP: “I said this morning as of a couple months ago, we have spent $7 trillion in the Middle East — $7 trillion. What a mistake. … $7 trillion in the Middle East, and the Middle East is far worse now than it was 17 years ago when they went in.” — remarks at White House infrastructure event.
THE FACTS: There’s a lot wrong with his $7 trillion figure. First, he’s using an inflated estimate on the cost of wars. Second, he’s referring in part to predicted costs going decades into the future, not money that’s all been “spent.”
Third, some of the spending he calls a “mistake” reflects his own policy decisions. It finances the military effort he brags about against Islamic State militants and his continuing push for U.S. aims in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. He’s added a few thousand troops in Afghanistan and committed the U.S. to remaining there indefinitely.
The Pentagon estimates that wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria have directly cost U.S. taxpayers more than $1.5 trillion. To be sure, actual costs are higher.
Boston University political scientist Neta C. Crawford, as co-director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University, estimated that as of September, U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria — plus additional spending on homeland security, the Pentagon and Veterans Affairs Department since the 2001 terrorist attacks — cost more than $4.3 trillion.
That rises to an estimated $5.6 trillion or more when anticipated future spending on veterans and other factors related to the wars so far are added.
Although that’s an expensive commitment, it’s far short of the $6 trillion or $7 trillion that Trump has been citing for several years, first as a candidate, then president. Even scholarly estimates involve ballpark projections, not just money that is gone.
Associated Press writers Robert Burns, Christopher Rugaber and Josh Boak contributed to this report.
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EDITOR’S NOTE _ A look at the veracity of claims by political figures