AP FACT CHECK: Trump’s flawed ‘read the transcript’ defense
WASHINGTON – It’s been his drumbeating demand: “Read the transcript!”
“Just read the transcript.”
“Can’t we read English?”
“Just read the Transcript, everything else is made up garbage.”
“READ THE TRANSCRIPT!”
Heading into public hearings this week, people have read the transcript , and that’s why President Donald Trump has an impeachment problem.
The whistleblower, the rough transcript of the July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukraine’s leader, and the words of a succession of career civil servants and Trump political appointees brought before Congress are largely in sync.
Together they have stitched an account that shows Trump pressing for a political favor from a foreign leader and, as key testimony has it, conditioning military aid on getting what he wanted.
Trump’s defense, as the House prepares to open its hearings Wednesday on the matter, has been to point to his own problematic words in the Ukraine phone call, declare them to be exonerating, and repeat.
In the face of abundant evidence that the whistleblower remains engaged, Trump suggests the whistleblower has skulked away. Political loyalists who tried to do Trump’s bidding with Ukraine are lumped with career diplomats as “Never Trumpers.”
He assails the whistleblower’s account of the phone call as “sooo wrong, not even close,” even though the official White House account of the call that came out afterward showed the whistleblower got the details right.
“Once I released the actual call, their entire case fell apart,” Trump said of Democrats. The rough transcript actually helped fuel the inquiry because it affirmed and fleshed out the whistleblower’s account.
Trump has approached the spectacle of public hearings in the impeachment inquiry with understandable frustration but also a flawed account of the circumstances behind them.
A look at recent remarks by the president and his allies on this and other matters:
TRUMP: “It was just explained to me that for next weeks Fake Hearing (trial) in the House, as they interview Never Trumpers and others, I get NO LAWYER & NO DUE PROCESS.” – tweet Thursday.
THE FACTS: The hearing is a hearing, not a trial, and it is unfolding according to the usual process.
Trump is correct that he and his legal team are excluded from public hearings that begin Wednesday, but he hasn’t been charged with anything and has no constitutional right to be represented by a lawyer in this proceeding.
In that sense, his position is not much different from criminal suspects who are being investigated but haven’t been charged, or from past presidents at this stage of impeachment proceedings.
The coming public hearings led by the House Intelligence Committee are akin to the investigative phase of criminal cases, generally conducted in private and without the participation of the person under investigation.
But in future House Judiciary Committee hearings that presumably would result in the drafting of impeachment articles, Trump would be invited to attend and his lawyers could question witnesses and object to testimony and evidence, similar to the process in the impeachment proceedings against Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.
If there is a Senate trial, Trump’s legal team would defend the president against impeachment articles approved by the House in an environment that would look like a typical trial in some respects.
TRUMP: “The whistleblower disappeared.” – Louisiana rally on Wednesday.
TRUMP, speaking about the period after he released a rough transcript of his phone call with Ukraine’s president: “You haven’t heard about the whistleblower after that, have you?” – Kentucky rally on Nov. 4.
THE FACTS: The whistleblower did not disappear after the White House, in late September, released a rough transcript of Trump’s call with Ukraine’s president. In fact, the whistleblower is offering to answer written questions by GOP lawmakers, but so far Republicans have rebuffed him.
Trump’s suggestion is that the whistleblower’s account is false, and so the person has vanished, but key details have been corroborated by people with firsthand knowledge of the events who have appeared on Capitol Hill.
The rough transcript of the July 25 phone call also showed that the whistleblower had accurately summarized the conversation in the complaint sent to the acting director of national intelligence.
The whistleblower has offered through his or her lawyers to answer questions directly from Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee “in writing, under oath & penalty of perjury.” But House Republicans, who are interested in exposing the whistleblower’s identity, want that official to appear at the public hearings.
U.S. whistleblower laws exist to protect the identity and careers of people who bring forward accusations of wrongdoing by government officials. Lawmakers in both parties have historically backed those protections.
TRUMP, on the whistleblower: “He must be brought forward to testify. Written answers not acceptable!” – tweet on Nov. 4.
THE FACTS: Trump’s stance on providing written answers in a federal investigation is a turnabout from a few months ago.
Trump himself refused to provide anything but written answers in response to limited questions during the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference during the 2016 election.
TRUMP, on Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee: “How about Schiff? He makes up a conversation, he gets up before the United States Congress, he repeats my conversation with the head of the Ukraine … it was a total lie, and then I actually went and released the actual conversation.” – Kentucky rally on Nov. 4.
THE FACTS: He’s exaggerating the episode and botching the timeline.
Schiff delivered what he called a parody of Trump’s remarks in the president’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s leader.
Schiff did so after the White House released a rough transcript of the call, not before, as Trump states. So people who read the official account knew Schiff was riffing from it, not quoting from it.
SEN. RAND PAUL, R-Ky., arguing the whistleblower should be made to come forward so Trump can engage with that official: “Enshrined in the 6th Amendment is the right to confront your accuser.” – tweet Tuesday.
THE FACTS: Paul omits key words from the start of the Sixth Amendment: “In all criminal prosecutions.”
Trump is not facing an accuser in a criminal proceeding. The hearings are a political proceeding.
Moreover, the whistleblower’s account has been substantiated by multiple on-the-record accounts of government officials and the rough transcript of Trump’s phone call with Ukraine’s president that the White House released.
The Sixth Amendment guarantees a lawyer for criminal defendants and the right to confront their accusers. As it happens, the impeachment process also is outlined in the Constitution and it gives the House the sole power to impeach and the Senate the sole power to remove an official, including the president, from office.
WHITE HOUSE: “Before there was a whistleblower, there was the whistleblower’s attorney–tweeting about overthrowing the government because he didn’t like the election results.” – tweet Thursday.
TRUMP: “Coup has started, whistleblower’s attorney said in 2017. Do you know when that was? That was a long time ago. It’s all a hoax. They say January 2017 a coup has started, and the impeachment will follow ultimately. It’s all – it’s all a hoax.” – Louisiana rally on Wednesday.
THE FACTS: Trump and his team can’t be faulted for believing that Mark Zaid, one of the whistleblower’s attorneys, has it out for the president.
That does not mean Zaid can be dismissed as a Democratic partisan.
The longtime Washington lawyer has represented people in both parties, causes dear to each side and a line of whistleblowers.
Trump and his team are pointing to a January 2017 tweet by Zaid, who says he’s a registered independent, in which he writes “#coup has started. First of many steps. #rebellion. #impeachment will follow ultimately.”
That tweet was in response to news that Trump had fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates after she refused to enforce a ban on travel for people living in several predominantly Muslim countries.
Some of Zaid’s legal work over the years has involved issues close to Trump, such as his challenge of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.
Zaid represented a veterans’ group in a lawsuit against the State Department that sought records of Clinton’s response to the Benghazi, Libya, attacks as secretary of state. The suit targeted Clinton’s reliance on the private server for government communication, saying “it may have been a deliberate attempt to shield communications from capture by governmental systems and the public’s eye.”
He also represented CIA contractors who were in Benghazi on the night of the attacks.
Zaid served as an attorney for the late Republican Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina and The Daily Caller, a conservative publication, in public records suits against the federal government.
Zaid now says his reference to a “coup” referred to those working in the Trump administration who were standing up to the president to help enforce the rule of law.
TRUMP, on former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter: “Now look the $1.5 billion that Hunter … got a lot of money from Ukraine, but he got $1.5 billion from China. …They gave him $1.5 billion, he will make millions and millions with that. …I think they would love to see another president.” – Kentucky rally.
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.
The impeachment process was sparked by Trump’s pressure on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden when the father was vice president and his son in international business. He has also urged China to investigate.
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, says his client was an unpaid director of the fund at the time and pocketed nothing.
“To date, Hunter has not received any compensation for being on BHR’s board of directors,” Mesires said, referring to the fund. “He has not received any return on his investment.”
TRUMP: “Every year, as the fire’s rage & California burns, it is the same thing - and then he (Newsom) comes to the Federal Government for $$$ help. No more. Get your act together Governor. You don’t see close to the level of burn in other states.” – tweet on Nov. 3.
THE FACTS: Not true. There are far fewer acres burned in California than other places such as Alaska.
So far this year, slightly more than 266,000 acres of California have burned in more than 7,700 fires. That’s fewer than recent years for California, but the fires command attention because they are close to people.
While Alaska has had only 700 fires, it has lost 2.57 million acres to wildfires this year, more than nine times as much as California, according to statistics from the National Interagency Fire Center.
The Great Basin, Southern and Southwestern regions have all had more than 440,000 acres burned this year, far more than California.
“Fire is increasing everywhere because of climate change, but the impacts on people are more directly observable in California because of its population and wealth,” said LeRoy Westerling, a fire expert at the University of California, Merced.
TRUMP: “The Governor of California, @GavinNewsom, has done a terrible job of forest management. I told him from the first day we met he must ‘clean’ his forest floors, regardless of what his bosses, the environmentalists, DEMAND of him. Must also do burns and cut fire stoppers.” – tweet on Nov. 3.
THE FACTS: Trump is sidestepping responsibility. Of the 33 million acres of forest land in California, 57% is owned and managed by the federal government, 40% by private landowners and 3% by the state, according to Newsom’s office, Forest Unlimited and the University of California’s Forest Research and Outreach center.
Many of the recent fires are not in forests but shrub, agricultural area and grasslands where forest management is not an issue, University of Alberta fire expert Mike Flannigan said.
Chris Field, director of the Stanford Wood Institute for the Environment, said Trump is right to say California should be doing more to reduce the risks.
“I agree with the president that fuel reduction and fire breaks are important,” he said. “But they are just the beginning. We also need to upgrade homes and businesses to make them more fire resistant, improve defensible spaces around buildings, and limit ignitions, including from downed power lines.”
While California is increasing its spending for reducing fuels for fire by about $200 million for five years, federal officials are crying for money, Westerling said.
The National Forest Service’s California office says it needs $300 million more a year to meet its goal of restoring 500,000 acres per year, up from 200,000 acres annually.
— Associated Press writers Mark Sherman, Eric Tucker and Seth Borenstein contributed to this report.