President Donald Trump and his GOP allies are misrepresenting the facts behind the legal case of former national security adviser Michael Flynn as they seek to allege improper behavior during the Obama administration in the presidential campaign season.
Broadly dubbing his allegations “Obamagate,” Trump points to unspecified conspiracies against himself in 2016 and suggests the disclosure of Flynn’s name as part of legal U.S. surveillance of foreign targets was criminal and motivated by partisan politics. There’s no evidence of that.
In fact, the so-called unmasking of Americans’ names like Flynn’s is legal, and such requests have been more frequently sought in the Trump administration than in the last stretch of Obama’s tenure.
In a politically tumultuous week, the president also mischaracterized messages between FBI employees and again alleged without evidence corruption involving Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, in China.
Meanwhile, Trump continued to spread falsehoods about the availability of tests needed to help stem the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S.
A look at the past week’s political rhetoric and reality:
TRUMP: “OBAMAGATE!” — tweet Wednesday.
TRUMP: “Biggest political crime and scandal in the history of the USA.” — tweet Thursday.
THE FACTS: He’s making an unsupported claim that former President Barack Obama broke the law.
Trump and his supporters have made the unmasking of Flynn one of their major talking points, claiming that it proves the Obama administration unfairly and illegally targeted Flynn and other Trump associates.
But there is nothing illegal about unmasking. The declassified document also states that the unmasking requests were approved through the National Security Agency’s “standard process.”
Earlier in the week, when Trump was asked by reporters to define Obama’s criminal offense in the alleged “Obamagate,” Trump failed to articulate one. “You know what the crime is,” he said Monday. “The crime is very obvious to everybody. All you have to do is read the newspapers, except yours.”
During routine surveillance of foreign targets, names of Americans occasionally come up in conversation, either because the foreigner is talking to or about them. For privacy reasons, those names are generally concealed, or masked, before the intelligence is distributed to administration officials. U.S. officials can ask the agency that collected the intelligence to unmask the name if they think it is vital to understanding the intelligence.
While Trump casts unmasking as sinister, the number of identities unmasked in response to such requests has actually increased during the first years of the Trump administration from the final year of the Obama administration.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee: “The unmasking of General Flynn by the Obama Administration regarding conversations during the presidential transition are deeply troubling and smell of politics, not national security.” — statement Wednesday.
THE FACTS: There is nothing from newly released material that suggests the unmasking requests were rooted in politics rather than national security.
There were indeed multiple Obama administration officials, including then-Vice President Biden, who asked the NSA to disclose the name of an American whose identity was concealed in intelligence reports. That American was revealed to be Flynn.
But there’s nothing inherently unusual about the requests, and the documents released by the Trump administration say the people who made the requests were authorized to receive the underlying intelligence reports.
SEN. RAND PAUL, R-KY: “But it should be and is illegal to listen to an American’s conversation. And it’s even worse if you’re listening to an American who just happens to be your political opponent from the opposite party.” — interview Wednesday on Fox News Channel.
THE FACTS: It is not illegal to listen to an American’s conversations, and law enforcement officials do it routinely with a warrant or court order. But in any event, that’s not what happened here.
No one was listening intentionally to an American’s conversation. Instead, U.S. officials learned of the conversations that involved or mentioned Flynn during surveillance of foreign targets.
TRUMP, addressing the criminal case against Flynn that Trump’s Justice Department is now seeking to drop: “This was all Obama, this was all Biden. These people were corrupt, the whole thing was corrupt, and we caught them.” — interview Thursday on Fox News.
THE FACTS: He’s suggesting partisan politics by the Obama administration were completely behind Flynn’s investigation. That’s incorrect.
It is true that the counterintelligence investigation into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign, and into Russia in particular, began during the Obama administration. But it continued well into Trump’s own administration. The investigation into Flynn was taken over by a special counsel who was appointed by Rod Rosenstein, Trump’s own deputy attorney general.
TRUMP: “We just cracked 10 million tests … Ten million. … If you look down here, these are other countries that have not done anywhere near what we’re doing. We’re double. If you add them up and double them, we’ve done more tests. But I can’t get the press to print that, unfortunately.” — remarks Wednesday with governors of Colorado and North Dakota.
TRUMP: “What we’ve done on testing, we’ve now tested more than the entire world put together.” — remarks Thursday to reporters.
THE FACTS: False. The U.S. has not tested more than all other countries combined, let alone double the number for the entire world. It also lags many countries in testing its population proportionally.
Together, just three countries — Russia, Germany and Italy — have reported more tests than the U.S.
This week, the U.S. had reported conducting more than 10 million tests since the pandemic began, after failing in the crucial early weeks of the outbreak. That compared with more than 23 million tests by the other countries in the top 10 of the testing count.
The U.S. was followed by Russia, Germany, Italy, Spain, Britain, India, United Arab Emirates, Turkey and France.
BRETT GIROIR, the federal health official overseeing U.S. testing: “Everybody who needs a test can get a test. … If you’re symptomatic with a respiratory illness, that is an indication for a test and you can get a test. If you need to be contact traced, you can get a test.” — news briefing Monday.
THE FACTS: Not according to public health experts, who say the U.S. is not near the testing level to safely reopen.
Researchers at the Harvard Global Health Institute, for instance, said the U.S. should now be doing 900,000 tests a day to help stop the spread of the virus. Trump this week said the U.S. was doing about 300,000.
Giroir stressed that an adequate number of diagnostic tests were available for those with symptoms of COVID-19, but studies have shown many who get infected never show symptoms. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, has urged enough testing to include at the least asymptomatic people in vulnerable populations, such as nursing homes.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently broadened its guidelines for coronavirus testing to include certain asymptomatic people who may be seen at higher risk.
More than 40 states are failing to test widely enough to reach the level needed to safely loosen stay-at-home orders, according to an AP analysis of metrics developed by the Harvard Global Health Institute. The group includes four — Colorado, Florida, Georgia and Texas – that have already reopened.
TRUMP: “In January I put – and I was criticized by everybody including Dr. Fauci — I put in a wall. We put in a very strong wall. Only a small number of people were allowed in, and they were all U.S. citizens. I can’t tell a U.S. citizen, you can’t come back into your country. … We actually acted very early.” — interview Thursday with Fox News.
THE FACTS: The travel restrictions he imposed on China in late January had other loopholes besides the exceptions for U.S. citizens. It was not a solid wall or total “ban,” as he often puts it.
His order temporarily barred entry by foreign nationals who had traveled in China within the previous 14 days, with exceptions for U.S. citizens, but also their immediate family and permanent residents.
Dr. Anne Schuchat, the No. 2 official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told The Associated Press the federal government was also slow to understand how much coronavirus was spreading from Europe, which helped drive the acceleration of U.S. outbreaks in February. Trump announced restrictions for many European countries in mid-March.
”I think the timing of our travel alerts should have been earlier,” she said.
MORE ON ‘OBAMAGATE’
TRUMP: “So even before I got elected, you remember the famous — the two lovers, right, Strzok and Page, the insurance policy, she’s going to win, but just in case she doesn’t we have an insurance policy. That means that if I won, they’re going to try and take me out.” — Fox News interview Thursday.
THE FACTS: There was no conspiracy afoot to take out Trump in the 2016 text message between two FBI employees.
Trump depicts the two as referring to a plot — or insurance policy — to oust him from office if he won the presidential election over Democrat Hillary Clinton. It’s apparent from the text that it wasn’t that.
Agent Peter Strzok and lawyer Lisa Page, both now gone from the bureau, said the text messages reflected a debate about how aggressively the FBI should investigate Trump and his campaign when expectations at the time were that he would lose anyway.
Strzok texted about something Page had said to the FBI’s deputy director, to the effect that “there’s no way he gets elected.” But Strzok argued that the FBI should not assume Clinton would win: “I’m afraid we can’t take that risk.” He likened the situation to “an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before you’re 40.” He has said he was not discussing a plot to drive Trump from office.
TRUMP, on Hunter Biden: “Worst of all, was the last eight years under President Obama and Biden, where his son gets a billion and a half dollars, and then they’re supposed to be tough on China. … And he walked out of China with $1.5 billion dollars to invest for them, of which he makes hundreds of thousands — and actually millions — of dollars.” — interview Thursday on Fox News.
THE FACTS: There’s no evidence Hunter Biden pocketed $1.5 billion from China. More generally, accusations of criminal wrongdoing by father or son are unsubstantiated.
In 2014, an investment fund started by Hunter Biden and other investors joined with foreign and Chinese private equity firms in an effort to raise $1.5 billion to invest outside China. That’s far from giving Hunter Biden such a sum, as Trump describes it.
Hunter Biden’s lawyer, George Mesires, wrote in an internet post last year that his client was an unpaid director of the fund at the time “based on his interest in seeking ways to bring Chinese capital to international markets.”
“He has not received any return on his investment,” Mesires said.
Hunter Biden stepped down from the Chinese board last October as part of a pledge not to work on behalf of any foreign-owned companies should his father win the presidency.
Source: Associated Press – HOPE YEN, ERIC TUCKER and MATTHEW PERRONE