Political Fact-Checkers Putting In for Overtime

WASHINGTON (AP) — As near-certain impeachment closes in on him, President Donald Trump raged at his Democratic accusers by offering a highly selective account of the testimony of a damning witness and misrepresenting the facts of the phone call at the heart of the constitutional showdown.

Trump branded Democrats crazy for wanting to impeach him after all the things he said he’s done for the country, some of which he did not actually do. And he falsely credited his daughter with creating 14 million jobs though it’s not clear she’s created any.

Meanwhile, Democratic presidential contender Michael Bloomberg came out with an energy plan that claimed he was personally responsible for much of the decline of the coal industry. He wasn’t.

Here is a sampling of last week’s political rhetoric:

JOBS

TRUMP, on his daughter, Ivanka: “She has been so extraordinary, in terms of her advocacy for America’s working families. Fourteen million people she’s gotten jobs for, where she would go into Walmart, she would go into our great companies and say, ‘They really want help. They really want you to teach them.’ … She’s done over 14 million.” — remarks Thursday at White House meeting on child care and paid leave

THE FACTS: His daughter hasn’t created 14 million jobs. The United States has created only 6.6 million jobs since Trump took office.

The president referred to a White House initiative led by Ivanka Trump that has garnered nonbinding commitments from 370 companies to provide 14 million training opportunities in the years ahead. Training for a job is not working at a job for money.

There are questions about how much the administration is willing to spend to help U.S. workers, whether the agreements by companies will result in higher salaries and whether employers will stick to their pledges if the economy sours and they have less incentive to hire.

By having companies sign the pledge, the administration is relying on the private sector to take on more of the financial burden of training workers.

The government spends just 0.03% of the gross domestic product on job training, a level of support that has been halved since 2000, according to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Of the 36 countries in the organization, only Japan and Mexico spend less than the United States by that measure.

Nor is it clear how many workers were going to be trained even without the initiative. In many cases, the pledge simply confers a presidential seal of approval on what some companies were doing anyway.

COAL & CLIMATE

BLOOMBERG says he “helped close more than half the nation’s dirty coal plants.” — energy plan announcement Friday.

BLOOMBERG announcement: “Coal production in the United States is on the decline, thanks to the efforts spearheaded by Mike over the past decade. … In 2011, Mike helped launch the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, which has since shuttered more than half — 299 to date — of America’s coal-fired power plants, and counting.”

THE FACTS: Bloomberg is taking sweeping, unearned credit for the decline of coal. Market forces, not his money, influence or activism, put coal on its inexorable path.

Drops in prices of natural gas and renewable energy have made costlier coal-fired power plants much less competitive for electric utilities. A new federal report reaffirms that long-standing consensus among experts.

U.S. coal production has fallen steadily since its peak in 2008. That’s due largely to a boom in oil and gas production from U.S. shale, begun under the Obama administration, that made natural gas far more abundant and cheaper. And advances in technology have spurred wind and solar energy production.

Bloomberg’s energy plan calls for constraints on the expansion of natural gas, the primary fuel driving coal’s decline. He proposes making rules for new gas plants so tough that energy companies would not want to build them.

IMPEACHMENT

TRUMP: “By the way, a guy like Sondland — nobody ever says it — he said very strongly that I said, ‘I want nothing’ and ‘no quid pro quo.’ Nobody says that. That’s what he said. He said it in Congress. Nobody ever says that.” — remarks Friday with Paraguayan President Abdo Benítez

THE FACTS: That’s a distorted and inaccurate account of the testimony that Gordon Sondland, Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, gave to House investigators.

As one of the officials most deeply involved in trying to get Ukraine to do Trump’s bidding, Sondland testified that there was indeed a quid pro quo in the matter and that “everyone was in the loop.” Specifically, he said it was understood that Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, would get a meeting with Trump in the Oval Office if only Zelensky publicly pledged to investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

“Was there a ‘quid pro quo?’ Sondland asked in his statement to the House Intelligence Committee. “As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”

Moreover, on the more serious matter of withholding military aid to Ukraine unless it investigated Democrats, Sondland testified that a this-for-that explanation was the only one that made sense to him.

“I later came to believe that the resumption of security aid would not occur until there was a public statement from Ukraine committing to the investigations of the 2016 election and Burisma,” he said, referring to the Ukrainian company on whose board Hunter Biden sat.

Testimony from other officials shored up the picture of a president and his associates systematically trying to get Ukraine to do what Trump wanted during a period when $391 million in military assistance to a U.S. ally at war with Russian and approved by Congress was put on hold without explanation. Sondland said Trump told him on the phone that he was asking nothing of Ukraine. But it is plain from his testimony that Sondland did not believe him.

TRUMP: “They didn’t even know probably that we had it transcribed, professionally transcribed, word for word transcribed. So beautiful. Am I lucky I had it transcribed? Think of that. Think of that.” — Pennsylvania rally Tuesday

THE FACTS: No, the White House memo describing Trump’s phone conversation with Zelenskiy was not “word for word.”

It was presented by the White House as a rough transcript. The public does not know precisely what each leader said.

Officials who were tasked to listen in to the call say the rough transcript is largely accurate in representing the material aspects of the conversation as they heard it.

One such witness testified that some quotations in the account were not exact, though he did not consider the variance to be consequential.

For example, a question remains whether Trump or Zelensky named Burisma in the conversation.

In the rough transcript, Zelensky said he would have his prosecutor “look into the situation, specifically to the company that you mentioned,” and Trump spoke of a situation that “sounds horrible to me” involving Hunter Biden and Joe Biden, explicitly. Whether Burisma was mentioned or not, there is no doubt what company was being discussed.

TRUMP: “”How do you get Impeached when you have done NOTHING wrong (a perfect call), have created the best economy in the history of our Country, rebuilt our Military, fixed the V.A. (Choice!), cut Taxes & Regs, protected your 2nd A, created Jobs, Jobs, Jobs, and soooo much more? Crazy!” — tweet Friday

THE FACTS: He didn’t do all that.

He refers to Choice, a program that allows veterans under some conditions to go outside the Veterans Affairs health care system and seek private care at public expense. President Barack Obama enacted the law creating the program.

Trump routinely tries to take credit for his predecessor’s VA achievement. Trump expanded Obama’s Choice program.

Trump is also wrong in saying the U.S. economy is the best ever. It is not.

The economy grew by 2.9% in 2018, the same pace it reached in 2015 under Obama, and it has not hit historically high growth rates. Growth reached 7.2% in 1984 and topped 4% for four straight years in the late 1990s, under Democratic President Bill Clinton. The unemployment rate is at a half-century low of 3.5% but the proportion of Americans with a job was higher in the 1990s.

Trump is right that he’s cut taxes and regulations and increased military spending, and there’s been little movement on gun control.

TRUMP: “They don’t even allege a crime. Crazy!” — tweet Thursday

TRUMP: “There were no crimes. They’re impeaching me, and there are no crimes.” — Pennsylvania rally Tuesday

Rep. STEVE CHABOT of Ohio, Republican on the House Judiciary Committee: “This president isn’t even accused of committing a crime.” — impeachment hearing Thursday

Rep. DOUG COLLINS of Georgia, top Republican on the committee: “We don’t have a crime.” — hearing Monday

THE FACTS: Republicans gave this misleading defense until the bitter end of the impeachment hearings and it will be heard again as the process unfolds. The constitutional grounds for impeachment do not require a statutory crime to have been committed.

In setting the conditions of treason, bribery or high crimes and misdemeanors, the Founding Fathers said a consequential abuse of office was subject to the impeachment process they laid out. As such, the “high crimes and misdemeanors” standard is open-ended, to encompass abuses even if they are not illegal.

Democrats last week released two articles of impeachment against Trump: abuse of power for asking Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden while withholding $391 million in military aid as leverage; and obstruction of Congress for stonewalling the House’s investigation.

Frank Bowman III, a University of Missouri law professor and author of “A History of Impeachment for the Age of Trump,” said that while it seems “almost commonsensically right” that the House should not impeach unless there’s a crime, that has not been the requirement in more than 600 years of British and American law.

STEVE CASTOR, Republican counsel for the House Judiciary Committee: “At the time of the July 25 call, senior officials in Kiev did not know the security assistance was paused. They did not learn it was paused until the pause was reported publicly in the U.S. media on Aug. 28.” — hearing Monday

THE FACTS: That’s incorrect. Ukrainians knew or at least suspected that hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid were frozen when the call took place, according to testimony heard by House investigators.

Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense, told the House Intelligence Committee in November that her staff received an email on July 25 from a contact at Ukraine’s Embassy asking “what was going on with Ukraine’s security assistance.” That’s the same day Trump spoke by phone with Zelensky and pressed for an investigation of Democrats.

Cooper said she “cannot say for certain” that Ukraine was aware the aid was being withheld, but said: “It’s the recollection of my staff that they likely knew.”

Republicans claim there could not be a quid pro quo — investigations into Democrats in exchange for military aid — if Ukrainians weren’t aware of a hold on the aid at the time. But, Zelensky knew months before the call  that much-needed U.S. military support might depend on whether he was willing to help Trump by investigating Democrats.

Democratic Rep. JERROLD NADLER of New York, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee: “Multiple witnesses — including respected diplomats, national security professionals, and decorated war veterans — all testified to the same basic fact: President Trump withheld the aid and the meeting in order to pressure a foreign government to do him that favor. … These facts are not in dispute.” — hearing Monday

THE FACTS: He’s right that plentiful testimony points to Trump conditioning military aid to Ukraine on the investigation he wanted Ukraine to conduct on Democrats. But is it a rock-solid case?

None of the witnesses who testified in House Intelligence Committee hearings in November could personally attest that Trump directly tied the release of the military aid to an agreement from Ukraine to conduct the investigations.

Sondland testified to a quid pro quo that involved arranging a White House visit for Zelensky in return for Ukraine announcing investigations of Burisma and a discredited conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, had interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

But Sondland says no one told him that hundreds of millions of dollars in security assistance to Ukraine were contingent on satisfying Trump’s request for investigations. He said he simply presumed that was the case, based in part on the absence of any other credible explanation.

RUSSIA INVESTIGATION

TRUMP, on former FBI employees Peter Strzok and Lisa Page: “This poor guy. Did I hear he needed a restraining order after this whole thing to keep him away from Lisa? That is what I heard. I don’t know if it’s true.” — Pennsylvania rally

THE FACTS: He’s passing on baseless innuendo about FBI employees who exchanged texts criticizing him.

TRUMP: “They spied on my campaign!” — tweet Wednesday

TRUMP: “My Campaign for President was conclusively spied on. Nothing like this has ever happened in American Politics. A really bad situation. TREASON means long jail sentences, and this was TREASON!” — tweet May 17, 2019

THE FACTS: The Justice Department watchdog report released Monday does not use the words “spied” or “treason.”

But it’s certainly the case that some of the investigative steps the report describes supports the fact that some of Trump’s campaign staffers were under surveillance.

Although the report says the FBI did not place any confidential human sources inside the campaign, it did task several of its sources to interact with multiple campaign officials. Those include Carter Page and campaign aide George Papadopoulos — during and after their times on the campaign — as well as an unidentified “high-level” campaign official who was not a subject of the investigation.

The report says that the use of those sources, though brushing up against protected First Amendment speech, followed protocol.

It also rejects Papadopoulos’ theory that he was framed.

Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, alleged that a Maltese professor who told him that Russia possessed stolen Hillary Clinton emails — a revelation that initiated the investigation — was some sort of intelligence asset or perhaps worked with the FBI.

But the report says the FBI searched its database of confidential human sources and found no evidence suggesting that the professor, Joseph Mifsud, was one of them, “or that Mifsud’s discussions with Papadopoulos were part of an FBI operation.”

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