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AP FACT CHECK: Trump's distorted letter to Dems and history

Posted at 12:17 PM, Dec 21, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-21 15:17:58-05

WASHINGTON (AP) — The closing passage in President Donald Trump's impeachment-eve letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had the ring of truth to it. He was writing his thoughts for history, he said. For 100 years from now, "when people look back at this affair.”

He is right that this letter passes firmly into history, as indelible as the mark of impeachment he now wears. If those future generations rely on his letter to understand what happened, though, they will be sorely misled.

On matters central to the case against him, to his legacy and to his ego, Trump got much wrong. He did not win the presidency in a “landslide.” He did not reinvent the Veterans Affairs Department. The Democrats did not shut him out of their impeachment process, but rather invited him in. His job-creation numbers are refuted by his own administration. And much more.

A look at the letter and other markers in a week also filled with a storm of tweets, his impeachment-night rally and a day-after Democratic presidential debate:


TRUMP: “Your chosen candidate lost the election in 2016, in an Electoral College landslide (306-227).” — letter to Pelosi, D-Calif., on Tuesday.

THE FACTS: Far from true. Trump's 2016 victory bore no resemblance to a landslide. He won with about 57% of electoral votes, a comfortable margin but no better than average or below average. Barack Obama and Bill Clinton each won bigger victories twice and many other presidents outperformed Trump.

Here is what Electoral College landslides look like: Franklin Roosevelt, 98.5% in 1936, 88.9% in 1932; Ronald Reagan, 97.6% in 1984; 90.9% in 1980. Richard Nixon, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Lyndon Johnson also topped 90% in an analysis of all elections by Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College.

Moreover, Republican Trump lost the popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton, a rare occurrence for a winning candidate.

And Trump misstated the electoral count by which he won. The official count was 304-227, not 306-227, according to an Associated Press tally of the electoral votes in every state.



TRUMP, speaking when the stock market was down: “If the stock market goes up or down — I don’t watch the stock market. I watch jobs." — remarks Dec. 3 during NATO summit.

TRUMP, speaking when the stock market was up: “Broke all time Stock Market Record again today. 135 times since my 2016 Election Win. Thank you!” — tweet Friday.

THE FACTS: He watches the stock market.



TRUMP: “More due process was afforded to those accused in the Salem Witch Trials.” — letter to Pelosi.

THE FACTS: No. Nineteen people were executed after being falsely accused of witchcraft in trials in colonial Massachusetts. Trump, meanwhile, has lawyers, a Republican-controlled Senate, the power of the presidency, constitutional protections and money behind him.

The Salem trials were so unfair that they have become the metaphor of choice for Trump in complaining about the “witch hunt” against him. Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll urged Trump to “learn some history.”


TRUMP: “You know full well that Vice President Biden used his office and $1 billion dollars of U.S. aid money to coerce Ukraine into firing the prosecutor who was digging into the company paying his son millions of dollars.” — letter to Pelosi.

THE FACTS: He’s incorrect to say that Biden, now a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, pressed to have the prosecutor fired while the prosecutor was investigating Burisma, the energy company in Ukraine where Biden’s son Hunter sat on the board of directors. In fact, by the time Biden came out against the prosecutor, the investigation into the company was dormant.

Biden, among other international officials, was pressing for a more aggressive investigation of corruption in Ukraine, not a softer one.

Trump's team cites a video of Joe Biden from 2018. Speaking on a public panel, Biden recounted threatening to withhold a loan guarantee from Ukraine's government unless it fired the prosecutor, who was widely considered ineffective if not corrupt himself.

What Trump doesn't say is that in February 2016, a few months after Biden threatened to hold back a $1 billion loan guarantee, the International Monetary Fund threatened to delay $40 billion in aid unless Ukraine took action to fight corruption.

An investigation into Burisma's owner for money laundering, tax evasion and other alleged misdeeds began in 2012 and pertained to the years before Hunter Biden joined the board.


TRUMP: “I have been denied the most fundamental rights afforded by the Constitution, including the right to present evidence, to have my own counsel present, to confront accusers, and to call and cross-examine witnesses.” — letter to Pelosi.

THE FACTS: This is a distortion. In the House proceedings, Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee that drafted the articles of impeachment invited Trump and his lawyers to take part and ask for witnesses. The witnesses who did come forward were questioned by Republicans on the committee as well as by Democrats.

Earlier hearings by the House Intelligence Committee did not invite Trump or his team. Those hearings were like the investigative phase of criminal cases, conducted without the participation of the person under investigation. But lawmakers from both parties questioned the witnesses. Trump complained about being shut out of that but when the Judiciary Committee hearings were opened to his team and him, he declined.


TRUMP: “This is nothing more than an illegal, partisan attempted coup.” — letter Tuesday to Pelosi.

THE FACTS: No illegal takeover is afoot.

The impeachment process is laid out in the Constitution, giving Congress the authority to impeach and try a president as part of its responsibilities as a coequal branch of government to provide a check on a president who commits treason, bribery, or "other high crimes and misdemeanors."

The standard of "high crimes and misdemeanors" is vague and open-ended to encompass abuses of power even if they aren't illegal.

Some Democrats also cried “coup” when the House impeached Bill Clinton in 1998 and it wasn't one then, either.


TRUMP, referring to "the so-called whistleblower who started this entire hoax with a false report of the phone call that bears no relationship to the actual phone call that was made." — letter to Pelosi.

THE FACTS: No, the whistleblower's accusations have not been shown to be incorrect. Key details have been corroborated.

For example, the White House account of Trump's July 25 phone call with Ukraine's new president showed that the whistleblower had accurately summarized the conversation, as relayed by unidentified U.S. officials, in the complaint sent to the acting director of national intelligence. Witnesses who heard the call testified to the accuracy of that account.


TRUMP: “Fortunately, there was a transcript of the conversation taken, and you know from the transcript (which was immediately made available).” — letter to Pelosi.

THE FACTS: Not that immediate. Trump made the call in question to Ukraine's president July 25. The White House released the rough transcript Sept. 25, only (but quickly) after Pelosi announced the impeachment inquiry.


TRUMP: “The Articles of Impeachment introduced by the House Judiciary Committee are not recognizable under any standard of Constitutional theory, interpretation, or jurisprudence. They include no crimes."

THE FACTS: This frequent defense by Trump and his Republican allies is misleading. 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.

The House approved two articles of impeachment against Trump: abuse of power for asking Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden while withholding nearly $400 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 shouldn't impeach unless there's a crime, that has not been the requirement in more than 600 years of British and American law.


TRUMP: “Congressman Adam Schiff cheated and lied all the way up to the present day, even going so far as to fraudulently make up, out of thin air, my conversation with President Zelensky of Ukraine and read this fantasy language to Congress.”

THE FACTS: He's overstating the exaggerated account by the House Intelligence Committee chairman, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., of what Trump said in his July 25 phone call with Ukraine's leader, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Most of Schiff's details were accurate and not made up “out of thin air" nor a “fantasy.”

Schiff prefaced and concluded his account at a House Intelligence Committee hearing by saying he was giving the “essence” of what Trump said on the phone call, skipping the "rambling” parts. He invited people not to take him literally.

Trump routinely and coarsely mocks critics and invents dialogue that he attributes to them. He did so at an impeachment-night rally Wednesday in Michigan, when he put himself in the voice of Bill Clinton, as if advising Hillary Clinton to campaign in that state and Wisconsin on the eve of the 2016 election. “And he said, ‘You horrible human being, you had better start listening to me because you are going to get your ass whipped,’” Trump said to laughs.


TRUMP: “Ambassador Sondland testified that I told him: 'No quid pro quo. I want nothing. I want nothing. I want President Zelensky to do the right thing, do what he ran on.'" — letter to Pelosi.

THE FACTS: Trump is shading what Gordon Sondland, Trump's ambassador to the European Union, told 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 “everyone was in the loop.” Specifically, Sondland said it was understood that Ukraine's new president would only get a meeting with Trump in the Oval Office if he publicly pledged to investigate the Bidens and the Democrats.

“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 the country investigated Democrats, Sondland testified that a this-for-that explanation was the only one that made sense to him.

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 the military assistance approved by Congress was put on hold without explanation.


TRUMP, on his July call: “President Zelensky has repeatedly declared that I did nothing wrong, and that there was No Pressure." — letter to Pelosi.

THE FACTS: Trump misleads.

While Zelenskiy initially said there was no discussion of a quid pro quo, he told Time this month that Trump should not have blocked military aid to Ukraine. Zelenskiy also criticized Trump for casting the country as corrupt, saying it sends a concerning message to international allies.

On that call discussing military aid, Trump asked Zelenskiy to investigate Trump’s political rivals in the U.S.

“Look I never talked to the president from the position of a quid pro quo,” Zelenskiy said. “But you have to understand. We’re at war. If you’re our strategic partner, then you can’t go blocking anything for us. I think that’s just about fairness."

It’s true that in early October, Zelenskiy had told reporters “there was no pressure or blackmail from the U.S.” But he did not state Trump had done “nothing” wrong.

In any event, Zelenskiy 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.



TRUMP: “You completely failed with the Mueller report because there was nothing to find.” — letter to Pelosi.

THE FACTS: Not true. The inquiry by special counsel Robert Mueller uncovered criminal behavior, put some perpetrators in prison, traced a virulent effort by Russia to disrupt the U.S. election in 2016 and pointed to troubling behavior by Trump and his associates, leaving Congress to weigh it and decide whether to respond. Mueller's report did not establish a criminal conspiracy between Moscow and the Trump campaign.

Mueller's two-year investigation produced guilty pleas, convictions and criminal charges against Russian intelligence officers and others with ties to the Kremlin, as well as Trump associates. It certainly found something.

All told, Mueller charged 34 people, including the president's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort; his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn; and three Russian companies. Twenty-five Russians were indicted on charges related to election interference, accused either of hacking Democratic email accounts during the campaign or of orchestrating a social media campaign that spread disinformation on the internet.

Five Trump aides pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with Mueller. A sixth, longtime confidant Roger Stone, was convicted last month of lying to Congress and witness tampering.

Mueller's report concluded that Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election was "sweeping and systematic." Ultimately, Mueller did not find a criminal conspiracy. But the special counsel didn't render judgment on whether Trump obstructed justice partly because of a Justice Department legal opinion that said sitting presidents shouldn't be indicted.



TRUMP: “I could be loved in Germany. They would love me — my father came from Germany.” — Michigan rally Wednesday.

THE FACTS: His father came from the Bronx, in New York City.

Trump repeatedly describes his father as German-born. The president's grandfather came from Germany.



TRUMP: “Your party simply cannot compete with our record: 7 million new jobs." — letter to Pelosi.

THE FACTS: He's overstating it. The U.S. has created 6.6 million jobs since Trump took office.


TRUMP: “Our record ... a colossal reduction in illegal border crossings.” — letter to Pelosi.

THE FACTS: That depends on what you consider colossal. Border arrests are down about 27% from Obama's last month in office. December 2016 was a high number for Obama's presidency as people rushed to cross the border before Trump's inauguration.

Arrests and denials of entry along the Mexico border can vary widely from month to month, so at one point — comparing September to May — Trump could claim a 64% decline. The drop is less than half of that over the sweep of his presidency.

Border arrests are a flawed gauge of illegal immigration. It may be impossible to know how many people escaped capture, but the Border Patrol estimates 20% eluded arrest in 2018. Also, an estimated 40% of people in the country illegally arrived legally and overstayed their visas. Border arrests don't take them into account. So the letter rests on partial accounting and misleading figures.


TRUMP: “Our record ... a completely reformed VA with Choice and Accountability for our great veterans.” — letter to Pelosi.

THE FACTS: Not exactly his record. Trump didn't enact Veterans Choice and a government watchdog found that the new accountability law had failed in its core mission of protecting whistleblowers who reported potential harm to veterans.

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. Obama created the program. Trump routinely claims credit for it. But he only built on Obama's achievement.

On accountability, a report released last month by the VA inspector general found that the VA accountability office established under the 2017 law did not consistently conduct sound and unbiased investigations and may not have protected identities of whistleblowers reporting wrongdoing.

It said the office had “significant deficiencies,” like poor leadership, shoddy training of investigators and a failure to push out underperforming senior leaders.

Just one senior manager out of the 8,000 employees fired by VA had been removed by an office created to help keep senior-level managers accountable, according to the findings by inspector general Michael Missal.

The VA acknowledged many of the findings and said it was working to make changes.



BERNIE SANDERS, on Biden's proposed health care plan: “Under Joe’s plan we retain essentially the status quo.”

JOE BIDEN: “That’s not true.”

THE FACTS: It’s not as simple as their lively exchange implies, but Biden is correct that his plan would go far beyond the “status quo.”

Sanders’ name is practically synonymous with “Medicare for All,” a tax-financed, government-run system that would cover all U.S. residents while doing away with private insurance.

Biden has proposed building on the Obama-era health law, adding a Medicare-like “public option” that any U.S. citizen or legal resident could opt for.

The U.S. has a hybrid health care system, balanced between private coverage through employers and government coverage through programs like Medicare and Medicaid. Biden would retain a mix of private and public coverage, so in a sense that’s the “status quo.”

But Biden’s public option that anyone could join would be a momentous change to the system, helping to get millions more people insured and paying hospitals and doctors based on Medicare rates, which are lower than what private insurance pays.

It’s a big enough change that the insurance industry is opposed, as are many other health industry players.

So Biden's approach would not be the status quo.


SANDERS: “Today in America, we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of almost any major country on Earth.” — debate Thursday.

THE FACTS: The Vermont senator is exaggerating.

There are nearly 200 countries in the world, many with people living in extreme poverty that most Americans would struggle to fathom. Poverty is also a relative measure in which someone who is poor in one nation might look rather prosperous in another.

But the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development updated its child poverty report in 2018. The United States had an above-average level of child poverty, but it was not among the 42 nations listed in the report that had the highest levels. The United States still fared better than Russia, Chile, Spain, India, Turkey, Israel, Costa Rica, Brazil, South Africa and China.


Associated Press writers Lynn Berry, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Josh Boak and Colleen Long contributed to this report.


EDITOR'S NOTE — A look at the veracity of claims by political figures.


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