On Friday morning, as President Trump faced withering scrutiny for his decision to fire the FBI director while his campaign is under FBI investigation, Trump took to Twitter to reiterate the talking point he deploys whenever the topic of his campaign’s possible collusion with Russia comes up.
When James Clapper himself, and virtually everyone else with knowledge of the witch hunt, says there is no collusion, when does it end?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 12, 2017
This talking point — that former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said there was “no evidence” of Trump campaign-Russia collusion — was debunked during a Senate hearing on Monday featuring testimony from Clapper and former acting Attorney General Sally Yates. Trump should’ve known better by Friday.
But early Friday afternoon, MSNBC had Clapper on to explain, once and for all, why Trump’s tweet is dishonest.
The long and short of it is that when Clapper said he wasn’t aware of evidence of collusion during a March 5 Meet the Press interview, he didn’t mean that such evidence doesn’t exit — he simply wasn’t looped in about the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation, which unbeknownst to Clapper has been going on since July 2016. (Former acting CIA Director Michael Morell also seemed to misinterpret Clapper’s remark in public comments he made in late March.)
“My practice during the six and a half years that I was at the DNI was always to defer to the director of the FBI — be it Director Bob Mueller or Director James Comey — on whether, when, and what to tell me about a counterintelligence investigation,” Clapper said. “So it is not surprising or abnormal that I would not have known about the investigation or even more important, the content of that investigation. So I don’t know if there was collusion or not, I don’t know if there is evidence of collusion or not, nor should I have in this particular context.”
Those comments echo what Clapper said during his testimony on Monday.
“During my tenure as DNI, it was my practice to defer to the FBI director, both Director Mueller and then subsequently Director Comey, on whether, when and to what extent they would inform me about such investigations,” Clapper told senators. “This stems from the unique position of the FBI, which straddles both intelligence and law enforcement. And as a consequence, I was not aware of the counterintelligence investigation Director Comey first referred to during his testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee for Intelligence on the 20th of March, and that comports with my public statements.”
Nonetheless, the White House has continued to use Clapper’s Meet the Press remark as a talking point even after his clarification. The morning after Clapper’s testimony and Comey’s firing, Deputy White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders grossly misrepresented Clapper’s words during an interview on Morning Joe.
Pushed about how Trump believes he can possibly get away with firing FBI Director James Comey amid an active FBI investigation, Huckabee Sanders said, “I hope that the Senate completes [their investigation] so that they can come to the same conclusion that everyone else has, and that every person has said, whether it’s been [former Director of National Intelligence James] Clapper or others, that there is no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.”
Not only did Huckabee Sanders mischaracterize what Clapper said, she also mischaracterized Comey, who never said there is no evidence of collusion. During the March 20 House hearing where he confirmed the Trump campaign is the subject of a counterintelligence investigation, Comey said, “I’ve been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.”
“That includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts,” Comey added.
The intelligence community’s comments were also twisted by White House senior counselor Kellyanne Conway. During an interview Tuesday night, Conway suggested that a meaningful distinction exists between Trump and his campaign. She implied that while the campaign may be under investigation, Trump the person isn’t.
“Let me repeat that the president has been told by the FBI director that he is not under FBI investigation, that is right in the president’s letter,” Conway said.
Anderson Cooper, incredulous, replied with, “This White House is under investigation, the people around the president are around investigation — you would agree with that, yes?
“No I don’t, I know that some are obsessed with the word Russia — the president is not under investigation, I’m around the president, I’m not under investigation,” Conway said. “I can name many people in that same situation.”
UPDATE: During the White House news conference on Friday, Press Secretary Sean Spicer played dumb when pressed by NBC’s Kristen Welker about the discrepancy between what Clapper is actually saying and Trump’s talking point.
“I actually think that’s a great question that you should ask Director Clapper,” Spicer said when asked about the discrepancy, ignoring the clarification Clapper offered on MSNBC just an hour or so earlier. “The question that I would ask then, Kristen, is then why did he say what he said before?”
Spicer went on: “So to suddenly today shift his story, I believe the question should be asked to him — you were the director of national intelligence, you said multiple times, including in testimony in front of Congress, under oath, that there was no collusion. I believe that that’s a question for him.”
Spicer defends Trump’s reliance on Clapper’s testimony of no collusion even after Clapper said he didn’t know https://t.co/kTCdD5YVsQ
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) May 12, 2017
What Spicer’s remarks conveniently ignore is that Clapper has never “shifted his story.” Clapper has repeatedly said he’s not aware of any evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, but that’s because he never has been privy to the FBI’s counterintelligence probe.
Clapper’s comments all along have been consistent with the possibility that evidence of collusion exists, but he simply isn’t aware of it.