WASHINGTON | Feeling the pressure of investigations and a partial government shutdown, President Donald Trump is playing loose with the facts regarding hush payments made by his former attorney Michael Cohen to two women and is changing his story on his promise to build a concrete border wall paid for by Mexico.
In comments over the weekend, Trump said he did not commit any campaign violation and suggests anything improper would be minor compared with infractions of Democrats such as former President Barack Obama. The reality is not so cut and dried. Federal prosecutors in New York have implicated Trump in a crime, linking him to the hush-money scheme. The Obama campaign’s infractions were civil, not criminal.
On the border wall, Trump insists he never promised a concrete barrier — even though he did — and asserts that much of it has been built. It hasn’t.
The dubious statements capped an expansive week of assertions by the president. On top of the usual Twitter flow, Trump opened a Cabinet meeting with 90 minutes of opining to the press, touching on immigration, drug prices, the Soviet history in Afghanistan, his approval ratings, Syria, oil prices, the attractiveness of his generals (“better looking than Tom Cruise”), and much more. A few days later he spoke for an hour at a Rose Garden news conference.
A sampling of his claims:
TRUMP: “Many people currently a part of my opposition, including President Obama & the Dems, have had campaign violations, in some cases for very large sums of money. These are civil cases. They paid a fine & settled. While no big deal, I did not commit a campaign violation!” — tweet Saturday.
THE FACTS: Trump has been tied to — but not charged with — a crime. At issue is not a routine campaign violation.
Prosecutors’ court filings last month said Trump directed Cohen to make payments 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.
Cohen, who pleaded guilty in August to campaign finance crimes in connection with those payments, had previously implicated Trump. Now the Justice Department is backing up Cohen’s claims.
In particular, the Justice Department says the hush money payments were unreported campaign contributions meant to influence the outcome of the election. That assertion makes the payments subject to campaign finance laws, which restrict how much people can donate to a campaign and bar corporations from making direct contributions.
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. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told NBC this past week that Trump isn’t necessarily immune, calling an indictment of a sitting president “an open discussion in terms of the law.”
There’s a big difference between Obama’s campaign violation and Cohen’s case.
A Federal Election Commission audit found that the 2008 Obama campaign failed to file 48-hour contribution reports in a timely manner for more than 1,200 donations totaling $1.9 million. The commission also found the campaign was late refunding some contributions that exceeded legal limits, and discovered some other reporting errors regarding contribution dates.
The commission fined the Obama campaign $375,000 for the violations. The campaign was not found to have willfully violated the law, making it a civil infraction.
In Cohen’s case, he admitted he knew he was breaking the law by making the payments. Cohen told ABC last month that “of course” Trump knew it was wrong to make the hush-money payments, though he did not provide any specific evidence in the interview. Unlike the Obama case, where the issue was timely reporting, the hush money payments were never disclosed at all on Trump’s campaign filings.
Andrew Herman, a lawyer specializing in campaign finance at law firm Miller & Chevalier, said the two cases are “completely different species.”
“One is a paperwork error,” he said. “And the other is a conscious attempt to obscure payments made to affect an election.”
TRUMP: “As far as concrete, I said I was going to build a wall. I never said, ‘I’m going to build a concrete.’ I said I’m going to build a wall.” — Rose Garden news conference Friday.
THE FACTS: Actually, he did say he would build a concrete wall. Trump even repeated that promise last week, rejecting the claim of his departing White House chief of staff John Kelly that Trump had abandoned the notion of “a solid concrete wall early on in the administration.”
“An all concrete Wall was NEVER ABANDONED,” Trump tweeted on Dec. 31. “Some areas will be all concrete but the experts at Border Patrol prefer a Wall that is see through.”
During the 2016 campaign, Trump pledged to build a “big, beautiful wall” made of concrete, rebar and steel across the length of the southern border with Mexico. Back then, he lashed out at the suggestion that what he was proposing had anything in common with mere fencing.
“Jeb Bush just talked about my border proposal to build a ‘fence,’ he tweeted in 2015. “It’s not a fence, Jeb, it’s a WALL, and there’s a BIG difference!”
He now often refers to the wall as “steel slats.”
“Steel is stronger than concrete,” he said Friday. “If I build a steel wall rather than a concrete wall, it will actually be stronger than a concrete” wall.
TRUMP: “When they say ‘build the wall,’ I don’t say that any more. I say ‘finish the wall.'” — remarks to reporters Sunday.
TRUMP: “We’ve already built a lot of the wall.” — Rose Garden news conference Friday.
THE FACTS: He hasn’t built much of the wall at all.
Trump’s claim is only supported when counting work done under past presidents and ignoring the fact that fences from prior administrations are not the towering walls he promised. The 2006 Secure Fence Act has resulted in about 650 miles (1,050 kilometers) of border barrier. Money approved by Congress in March 2018 is to pay for 84 miles (135 km), but that work is not done. Trump has achieved some renovation of existing barrier.
TRUMP: “The drugs are pouring into this country. They don’t go through the ports of entry. When they do, they sometimes get caught.” — Rose Garden news conference.
THE FACTS: He’s wrong in saying drug smugglers don’t or only rarely use official border crossings for their trafficking. Land ports of entry are their primary means for getting drugs into the country, not stretches of the border without barriers, says the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
The agency said in a November report that the most common trafficking technique by transnational criminal organizations is to hide drugs in passenger vehicles or tractor-trailers as they drive into the U.S. though entry ports, where they are stopped and subject to inspection. They also employ buses, cargo trains and tunnels, the report says, citing smuggling methods that would not be choked off by a border wall.
TRUMP: “The new trade deal we have with Mexico and Canada — what we save on that, just with Mexico, will pay for the wall many times over, just in a period of a year, two years or three years. So I view that as absolutely Mexico is paying for the wall.” — Rose Garden news conference.
THE FACTS: Mexico is not paying for the wall and nothing in the trade agreement would cover or refund the construction cost.
Trump is assuming a wide variety of economic benefits will come from the agreement, but they can’t be quantified or counted on. For example, he said the deal will dissuade some U.S. companies from moving operations to Mexico and he credits that possibility as a payment by Mexico for his wall.
The deal updates the North American Free Trade Agreement, in the main preserving NAFTA’s liberalized environment of low or no tariffs among the U.S., Mexico and Canada, while making certain improvements for each country. Trump stated inaccurately that it’s “brand new. It’s totally different.”
Moreover, it’s not in effect. The deal has yet to be ratified in any member country and its chances of winning legislative approval are not assured.
Trump has argued repeatedly that Mexico is footing the bill even while insisting on $5.6 billion from the U.S. treasury to go toward wall construction. His demand and the refusal of Democrats to satisfy it are behind the budget standoff that has closed parts of the government.
TRUMP: “We are pulling back in Syria. We’re going to be removing our troops. I never said we’re doing it that quickly.” — remarks to reporters Sunday.
TRUMP: “We’re bringing the troops back home over a period of time. I never said so quickly, but over a period of time.” — Cabinet meeting Wednesday.
THE FACTS: He’s wrong about his past statements regarding the pace of withdrawal. In a video posted to his Twitter account on Dec. 19, for instance, Trump said of the roughly 2,000 troops in Syria: “They’re all coming back, and they’re coming back now.”
TRUMP: “I read, when we pull out, ‘Oh, Russia is thrilled.’ Russia is not happy. You know why they’re not happy? Because they like it when we’re killing ISIS, because we’re killing them for them, and we’re killing them for Assad, and we’re killing ISIS also for Iran.” — Cabinet meeting.
THE FACTS: Russia says it’s happy. A U.S. withdrawal opens opportunities for Moscow and Tehran to increase their influence and may help the Syrian government survive as a Kurdish-led opposition force loses its military ally on the ground.
Russian President Vladimir Putin says the U.S. “has done the right thing” in planning to pull out.
TRUMP: “The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. They (the Soviets) were right to be there.” — Cabinet meeting.
THE FACTS: His assertion that the Soviet Union was experiencing a terrorist influx from Afghanistan when it invaded in 1979 is out of step with history. And his belief that the Soviets were right to invade is a stark departure from U.S. and world opinion.
The Soviets were trying to bolster communists in Afghanistan and possibly expand their influence against the United States and the West.
World condemnation was swift: The U.N. General Assembly voted 104-18 to deplore the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. The U.S. supported the anti-communist rebels, giving them shoulder-fired rockets to down Soviet aircraft. The Soviets withdrew in 1989.
TRUMP: “Russia used to be the Soviet Union. Afghanistan made it Russia, because they went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan.” — Cabinet meeting.
THE FACTS: Afghanistan was far from the sole reason for the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. The dissolution occurred in a time of ethnic and political troubles, economic woes and a series of revolutions that led Soviet republics to seek their independence. The Soviet demise was accelerated by the heavy cost of competing with the West to wield influence around the world, including in Afghanistan.
TRUMP: “Do you think it’s just luck that gas prices are so low, and falling? Low gas prices are like another Tax Cut!” — tweet Tuesday.
TRUMP: “It’s not luck. It’s not luck. I called up certain people, and I said, ‘Let that damn oil and gasoline — you let it flow — the oil.’ It was going up to $125. If that would’ve happened, then you would’ve had a recession, depression.” — Cabinet meeting Wednesday.
THE FACTS: It’s not all about him, or even mostly about him.
While Americans may end up paying somewhat less for gasoline this year, Trump’s suggestion that he deserves all the credit and averted a U.S. economic depression is an exaggeration. Oil prices, which peaked Oct. 3, have been generally falling on the realization that U.S. sanctions against Iran would not create a shortage and on fear that a global oversupply of oil will spill into 2019 if slower international economic growth depresses energy demand.
The president’s supposed “let it flow” edict did not stop OPEC and its Russia-led allies from agreeing last month to cut oil production. That initially failed to stop oil prices from sliding further; they have since rebounded a few dollars in the past week. Continued OPEC production cuts would push prices higher.
Trump has pointed to his positive relations with Saudi Arabia, which remains the biggest oil exporter. As a so-called swing producer with the ability to adjust production up or down relatively quickly, it can indeed influence the price of crude. But the market is complex: Canada, for example, is actually the top source of U.S. oil imports, with Saudi Arabia second.
TRUMP: “The United States Treasury has taken in MANY billions of dollars from the Tariffs we are charging China and other countries that have not treated us fairly. In the meantime we are doing well in various Trade Negotiations currently going on.” — tweet Thursday.
THE FACTS: Trump is off on two major issues. First, tariffs are taxes paid largely by U.S. business and consumers, not foreign countries. And while Trump’s “MANY billions” might sound like a lot, it’s doing little to nothing to improve the federal balance sheet. The U.S. government spent $4.1 trillion last fiscal year and the budget deficit shot up, according to Trump’s own Treasury Department.
Customs and duties generated $41.3 billion in revenues last year, up from $34.6 billion in 2017.
That $6.7 billion increase occurred in part because of the president’s tariffs. But it amounted to just 0.16 percent of federal spending.
TRUMP, on Jim Mattis: “I wish him well. I hope he does well. But, as you know, President (Barack) Obama fired him and essentially so did I. I want results.” — Cabinet meeting Wednesday.
THE FACTS: Actually, Mattis resigned as defense secretary in protest over Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops from Syria.
The retired Marine general announced on Dec. 20 in a resignation letter that he was stepping down after Trump’s decision to withdraw 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria. Mattis said he would stay on the job until the end of February. Three days later, Trump said he was replacing Mattis with the second-ranking defense official, Pat Shanahan, on Jan. 1.
As to the tenure under Obama, Mattis served as commander of the military’s Central Command. He departed a few months earlier than expected in 2013, in part because of disagreements over Iran.
TRUMP: “I think you’re going to see a tremendous reduction in drug prices.” — Cabinet meeting Wednesday.
THE FACTS: Prices continue to rise. Administration policies announced last year and currently being completed don’t seem to have shifted that trend.
Figures on U.S. prescription drug price changes compiled by health data company Elsevier show that from Dec. 20 through Jan. 2, there were 1,179 product price changes. Of those, 30 were price cuts and the remaining 1,149 were price increases, with 328 of them between 9 percent and 10 percent. All but one of the rest were by lower percentages. Elsevier spokesman Chris Capot said more companies will be announcing price increases this month.
Separately, a data firm whose software can help patients find the most cost-effective medications says its information shows price increases on many commonly used drugs for conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes.
“In the first two days of January, prices have increased on more than 250 different products,” said Michael Rea, CEO of Rx Savings Solutions. The average increase is about 6 percent, he added.
TRUMP, on the number of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally: “I used to hear 11 million all the time. It would always stay right at 11. I said, ‘Does it ever increase or go down?’ ‘No, it’s 11.’ Nobody knows. It’s probably 30, 35 million people. They would flow in, mostly from the southern border, they’d come in and nobody would talk about it, nobody would do anything about it.” — Cabinet meeting Wednesday.
THE FACTS: It’s nowhere close to 30 million to 35 million, according to his own Homeland Security secretary as well as independent estimates.
The nonpartisan Pew Research Center estimates there were 10.7 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally in 2016, the most recent data available. Advocacy groups on both sides of the immigration issue have similar estimates.
At a House hearing last month, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen acknowledged the number was “somewhere” between 11 million and 22 million, significantly lower than Trump’s claim of 35 million.
According to Pew, the number of immigrants in the U.S. illegally had reached a height of 12.2 million in 2007, representing about 4 percent of the U.S. population, before declining in part because of a weakening U.S. economy.
TRUMP: “The coyotes are using children to gain access into this country. They’re using these children. They’re not with families. They’re using the children. They’re taking the children. And then they dispose of the children after they’re done. This has been going on for years. This isn’t unique to us. But we want to stop it.” — Cabinet meeting Wednesday.
THE FACTS: This does happen, though it’s not as common as Trump suggests by talking about it so often.
He is referring to adults who come with children they falsely claim to be theirs, so that they won’t be detained under a no-child-separation policy.
But such cases of fraud are rare. According to the Homeland Security Department, about 500 immigrants were found to be not a “legitimate family unit” and thus separated upon detention from April 19 to Sept. 30 of last year. That’s a small fraction of the 107,000 families apprehended in the last budget year, which ended Sept. 30.
Associated Press writers Eric Tucker, Chad Day, Josh Boak, Michael Balsamo, Colleen Long, Jill Colvin, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Robert Burns and Deb Riechmann in Washington, David Koenig in Dallas, Kathy Gannon in Islamabad and AP Medical Writer Linda A. Johnson in Trenton, New Jersey, contributed to this report.
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