Mueller report documents Sean Spicer and Sarah Sanders lying to press
Donald Trump lies all the time, and his administration officials often end up lying on this behalf.
We know this. We’ve known this since the day after his inauguration, when then-press secretary Sean Spicer gave an angry press conference insisting that Trump had record crowds to watch him get sworn in.
But it’s striking that the Mueller report — in which Spicer and his successor, Sarah Sanders, are peripheral figures at best — still manages to incidentally document at least seven instances of Trump’s press secretaries lying, four of them in the 24 hours after Trump summarily fired FBI Director James Comey on May 9, 2017.
These aren’t all the times that special counsel Robert Mueller’s report proves that Trump administration officials were lying, or even all the times it shows Sanders and Spicer were lying. It is limited to the cases in which the lie is noted in the report, as well as the truth it ended up obscuring.
If the Mueller report is a testimony to just how big the difference is between “unequivocally a crime” and “an okay thing to do” — and arguably it is — having your press people lie routinely and without apparent regret about important things is a pretty representative motif. No one would argue that what Spicer or Sanders are documented doing here is criminally chargeable, but it’s still bad for democracy.
Spicer lied about who made the decision to fire Michael Flynn
As presented in the Mueller report, the decision that National Security Adviser Michael Flynn needed to go — as evidence began to pile up that he’d lied to Trump officials and maybe to the FBI about conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak about sanctions prior to Trump’s inauguration — was made on February 9, 2017 by then-White House Counsel Don McGahn and then-White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. “McGahn and Priebus concluded that Flynn should be terminated,” the report says, “and recommended that course of action to the President.”
It doesn’t tell us how Trump responded, though Trump did have at least one conversation with Flynn on February 12 that did not involve firing him. When Preibus finally ordered Flynn to resign, the president warmly wished him goodbye: “Priebus recalled that the President hugged Flynn, shook his hand, and said, ‘We’ll give you a good recommendation. You’re a good guy. We’ll take care of you.’”
But Sean Spicer, in a press briefing the next day, portrayed the decision as one that Trump himself made — because he no longer trusted Flynn: “a level of trust between the President and General Flynn had eroded to the point where he felt he had to make a change.”
The report makes clear that this was a lie. Flynn called White House adviser Jared Kushner after the press conference, upset about how Spicer had described the situation. Kushner, in the room with the president, reassured Flynn that Trump respected and cared about him — and promised a positive tweet about Flynn later (with Trump’s assent).
Flynn had every reason to be upset. He knew that the account Spicer had given simply wasn’t true. Trump’s continued defenses of Flynn and efforts to be in touch with him strongly suggested what the Mueller report proves: Spicer and others drafted a post-hoc fiction to absolve Trump of any suspicion about his judgment in hiring Flynn.
Sanders (probably) lied about whether Trump asked Comey for his loyalty
Shortly after Flynn was fired, Trump had a one-on-one dinner with then-FBI Director James Comey. Comey, in a memo he wrote immediately after the dinner and before both the special counsel’s investigators and Congress — in other words, under penalty of perjury —said that Trump told him, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.”
When Comey’s recollection of the dinner became public (in advance of his testimony before a Senate committee in June 2017), Trump denied any such statement, and so did his press team. Sarah Sanders told the New York Times that Trump “would never even suggest the expectation of personal loyalty.”
The Mueller report doesn’t prove that Trump and Sanders were lying about the loyalty request — though it does note that Trump lied about inviting Comey to dinner (Trump claimed Comey asked for the meeting, but the president’s schedule shows he initiated the invitation). But the report makes it clear which account it finds credible: “Comey’s memory of the details of the dinner, including that the President requested loyalty, has remained consistent throughout.”
Furthermore, in a footnote, the report reveals that Trump wasn’t exactly as averse to the idea of asking for loyalty as Sanders portrayed him. It summarizes a private conversation with Sean Spicer: Trump “stated that he had never asked for Comey’s loyalty, but added that if he had asked for loyalty, ‘Who cares?’”
Spicer lied about who decided to fire Comey
In the 24 hours after Comey was abruptly fired as head of the FBI, Spicer and Sanders lied about the circumstances of that firing in four distinct ways.
The first, and most blatant, was Spicer’s initial spin on the firing: that Donald Trump had had no involvement in getting James Comey fired.
Here’s how the Comey firing was planned, according to the Mueller report:
- On May 5, 2017, Trump decided to fire Comey and dictated a letter of dismissal.
- Trump kept revising with Stephen Miller over the weekend (though in every draft, he started the letter by mentioning that Comey told him he wasn’t under investigation).
- On May 8, 2017, Trump met with other senior advisers and presented Comey’s firing as a fait accompli: per the report, Trump “conveyed that the decision had been made and was not up for discussion.”
- McGahn suggested involving then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions and deputy Rod Rosenstein, who were already scheduled for a meeting with Trump later that day.
- McGahn and other officials told Sessions and Rosenstein about the plan at noon.
- Trump ordered Rosenstein to draft a memo expressing Rosenstein’s own concerns about Comey — but tried to get the Russia investigation into it.
- Ultimately, the White House team decided that Trump’s original letter would “[n]ot [see the] light of day,” and that the team provide “no other rationales” for firing Comey beyond what Sessions and Rosenstein wrote.
Here’s what Sean Spicer said about the Comey firing to reporters in the infamous “lurking in the bushes” press conference the night Comey was fired:
- “It was all [Rosenstein]. No one from the White House. It was a DOJ decision.”
Sanders lied about when Trump decided to fire James Comey
By the morning of May 10, the White House had abandoned the lie that Trump hadn’t made the decision to fire Comey. But they weren’t yet willing to jettison the post-hoc justification for Comey’s firing that Sessions and Rosenstein provided. In a press conference that day, Sarah Sanders said on multiple occasions that Trump didn’t make his final decision until after receiving Rosenstein’s memo the day before laying out the case against Comey — which focused on Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton investigation in 2016 and didn’t mention the Russia investigation.
It was obvious at the time that Sanders wasn’t telling the truth. One reporter pointed out that Rosenstein’s memo said that Comey had been too harsh on Clinton, while Trump had said Clinton should have been treated more harshly. (Sanders tried to claim that Trump had a different position as a candidate than he did as a president.)
But the Mueller report is pretty definitive that the decision to fire Comey was made before Sessions and Rosenstein were ever informed. It cites five different officials who describe Trump as being certain Comey should be fired as of the meeting on the morning of May 8; White House adviser Stephen Miller told investigators that Trump started the meeting with, “I’m going to read you a letter. Don’t talk me out of this. I’ve made my decision.”
Sanders lied about Sessions and Rosenstein’s involvement in the Comey firing
Buttressing Sanders’s lie about the Comey firing was a lie about why Sessions and Rosenstein had been involved in the process: “They had come to him to express their concerns,” she told the press the next day.
That’s simply not true. Sessions and Rosenstein had both had concerns with Comey, but the report makes it perfectly clear that their involvement in the process was initiated by the White House on Monday morning. “McGahn said previously scheduled meetings with Sessions and Rosenstein that day would be an opportunity to find out what they thought about firing Comey,” the report notes. After McGahn and other advisers held that meeting, they scheduled an Oval Office meeting for Sessions and Rosenstein to discuss Comey with Trump.
What’s especially important to note is that by the time Sanders gave this press conference, Sessions and Rosenstein had already told the White House that they felt they were being used. Sessions told McGahn’s office on Tuesday night that “Rosenstein was upset that his memorandum was being portrayed as the reason for Comey’s termination,” the report says, while Rosenstein told Trump himself that “if the press asked him, he would tell the truth that Comey’s firing was not his idea.” But Sanders went out the next day and portrayed them as advisers who’d brought independent concerns to Trump before Trump made his final decision.
Sanders lied about “countless” FBI agents losing faith in Comey
Of all the lies, this is the one that Sanders herself admitted was a lie to Mueller: the claim, expressed both in the May 10 press conference and in other interviews, that she had heard from “countless” members of the FBI who did not support Comey and were glad he was fired.
This too was a suspicious claim at the time, since contemporaneous reporting portrayed the FBI as being in mourning over Comey’s ouster. But the Mueller report discloses that Sanders didn’t have any backing for the claim at all:
Sanders told this Office that her reference to hearing from “countless members of the FBI” was a “slip of the tongue.” She also recalled that her statement in a separate press interview that rank-and-file FBI agents had lost confidence in Comey was a comment she made ”in the heat of the moment” that was not founded on anything.
Of course, these too appear to be lies — or at least flimsy excuses. Sanders is saying that a statement she made several times just during the May 10 presser was a “slip of the tongue,” and that its use again in a different interview was “in the heat of the moment.” Sanders’s statements to the special counsel’s investigators portray her as someone with too little self-control to be an effective messenger; the much more likely answer is that she was simply lying, and knew it, and kept doing it.
Sanders lied about Trump dictating the statement about the Trump Tower meeting
In July 2017, the Trump administration was contacted by the New York Times about a meeting that Trump campaign officials including Donald Trump Jr. had had with Kremlin-connected lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya in the summer of 2016.
Trump worked on a statement with adviser Hope Hicks, in which he worked to portray the meeting as entirely about US adoption law. He knew at the time this wasn’t true; he knew about the email exchange that had preceded the meeting, in which Trump Jr had expressed excitement over the idea of getting dirt on Clinton.
A few days later, though, the emails themselves were public (posted by Trump Jr. on Twitter) and the press was reporting that Trump had worked on the initial statement — a statement which now appeared to be an attempt at misdirection. Here was Sanders’s response:
“After consulting with the President on the issue,” the report says, “White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told the media that the President ‘certainly didn’t dictate’ the statement, but that ‘he weighed in, offered suggestions like any father would do.’“
Trump had, of course, dictated a statement. And his lawyers ultimately admitted as much in a “private communication” to Mueller’s team, saying that “the President dictated a short but accurate response to the New York Times article on behalf of his son, Donald Trump, Jr.”
That isn’t quite true, either — Trump’s suggested statement would not have been accurate, and it was additions by Trump Jr. and Hicks that made it only deeply misleading. But that, too, proves something: that there were people in Trump’s orbit who were capable of mitigating the president’s temptation to lie all the time. Those people just weren’t the ones in charge of talking to the press.