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Analysis

Trump’s lectern-based summation of the Mueller investigation is misleading

For one thing, the investigation was not costly to taxpayers — thanks to Paul Manafort, lover of crime.

Lies, damn lies, and statistics. (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Lies, damn lies, and statistics. (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

The most recent iteration of Infrastructure Week came to an abrupt halt Wednesday when President Donald Trump called off negotiations with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), vowing not to work with Democrats until they cease all meaningful oversight activity over his presidency.

There was, perhaps, an early warning that the talks were destined to end this way. Earlier in the day, a lectern was placed in the Rose Garden, with a nifty little sign attached summarizing — from the White House’s point of view, anyway — the Mueller investigation. As one might expect, numerous facts were glossed over within the margins of a single piece of posterboard, most notably the assertion that Mueller had found “no obstruction.”

But far from clearing the president, the Mueller report described the president’s efforts to obstruct justice in voluminous detail, leaving it up to Congress to pursue any charges. “If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state,” reads the report. “However, we are unable to reach that judgment.”

Perhaps the most misleading idea put forth by the White House’s visual aid is the implication that the investigation has been costly to taxpayers.

The exact cost of the Mueller investigation will not be known until the special counsel’s final expenditure report comes in later this year. The $35 million figure seems to have come from a back-of-the-envelope estimate extrapolated from previous expense reports published by Business Insider’s John Haltiwanger. There’s little doubt, however, that once the final figures are in, Trump will complain about the cost, as this has been a constant refrain.

Constant as it may be, it remains a spurious complaint. Should the total cost of the Mueller investigation come in at a mere $35 million, then it will have been a profitable enterprise for American taxpayers. As ThinkProgress has previously reported, this is all thanks to one person: Paul Manafort.

As CNBC’s Tucker Higgins and Jordan Malter reported in September, part of the plea deal that Mueller’s team reached with Manafort required the one-man crime syndicate to forfeit assets, the value of which was estimated to be “between $42 and $46 million.” The assets forfeited included a handful of real estate properties and a sizable amount of cash from his bank accounts and his life insurance policy. “Mueller,” they wrote, “may have also paid for his own investigation.”

Higgins and Malter go on to note that while the money seized from these asset forfeitures will not go directly to funding the Mueller investigation, it will nevertheless end up in the government’s coffers, thus heading off a “central criticism that Trump and his allies have levied against the inquiry.”

Obviously, there are reasonable arguments to be had over the merits of the Mueller investigation. But there is no evidence yet that suggests that taxpayer cost is one of them.

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This is not to say that taxpayers do not have reason to complain, however, as President Trump has, over the course of his first term, run up significant expenses in the service of amusing himself.