At the first official briefing by a White House press secretary in 417 days, Kayleigh McEnany promised journalists, “I will never lie to you.”
McEnany proceeded to say a bunch of things that weren’t true.
Whether they were deliberate lies or inadvertent false claims, we can’t be certain; since it was her first time at the podium after being hired in April, we’ll be generous in our choice of words. Regardless of her intentions, though, her comments were laden with inaccuracies.
McEnany misquoted an FBI agent’s written comment about former national security adviser Michael Flynn. She mischaracterized a Friday tweet by President Donald Trump about protesters in Michigan. She gave an inflated figure for the cost of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. And she said Mueller offered a “complete and total exoneration” of the President, something Mueller explicitly said he was not doing.
McEnany also added confusion to an already-confusing situation surrounding the President’s statements about whether the coronavirus originated in a Chinese laboratory.
McEnany defends Flynn by misquoting FBI notes
After taking questions about coronavirus, McEnany turned to the legal saga of Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser who resigned after a few weeks on the job in 2017 and pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his Russian contacts.
As part of his plea bargain, Flynn cooperated extensively with special counsel Robert Mueller, but he’s back in Trump’s good graces after publicly disavowing his guilty plea and accusing the Justice Department of anti-Trump misconduct.
Trump now says he is considering a pardon for Flynn, and ramped up his pro-Flynn rhetoric this week by seizing on a batch of newly unsealed documents that he says provide explosive new reasons to doubt Flynn’s prosecution.
McEnany referred to some of those documents Friday.
“We have a handwritten FBI note that says, quote, ‘we need to get Flynn to lie,’ quote, and get him fired,” McEnany said. “There is an unfair target on the back of General Michael Flynn. It should concern every American, anytime there is a partisan pursuit of an individual.”
Facts First: The FBI notes do raise serious new questions about the Flynn case, but McEnany misquoted them in a way that makes them look much more damning than they actually are. She ignored parts of the notes that undercut Trump’s cherry-picked narrative, and added the phrase “we need” before “to get him to lie,” even though she said it was a word-for-word quote.
Also, McEnany’s claims that Flynn was politically targeted are not supported by the facts. A federal judge recently ruled that there wasn’t a partisan plot against Flynn, and the Justice Department watchdog concluded that the Flynn investigation was opened without bias.
CNN examined many of the facts of Flynn’s case on Thursday after Trump made a series of similarly inaccurate and false claims.
The newly unsealed files – FBI emails and handwritten notes – shed new light on how FBI officials carefully prepared to interview Flynn in January 2017, when he was national security adviser. Investigators had reviewed US intelligence intercepts of Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador, and those transcripts contradicted public comments from several top Trump officials that Flynn never discussed sanctions with the Russians.
Flynn supporters point to one note where an FBI official asks, “What’s our goal? Truth/Admission or to get him to lie, so we can prosecute him or get him fired?”
At the press briefing on Friday, McEnany’s misquote of the line makes it look like the FBI was dead-set on coercing Flynn to lie.
A closer examination of the documents shows this is not necessarily the case. The newly public information is not a clear-cut breakthrough for Flynn. Other notes reveal that the FBI planned to refresh Flynn’s memory to give him a chance to correct his statement and potentially avoid a criminal charge.
Additionally, Flynn testified in 2018 that he knew it was a crime when he lied to the FBI agents, that he didn’t think his rights had been violated, and that he didn’t want to challenge the circumstances of his interview. He has since reversed course and is trying to withdraw his guilty plea, which requires a judge’s approval.
The judge overseeing Flynn’s case has previously rejected many of the allegations that McEnany and Trump are now championing. The judge said in a December ruling that “the record proves” that Flynn wasn’t ambushed by the FBI as part of some caper orchestrated by anti-Trump partisans.
The Justice Department inspector general also concluded in a sweeping report that there were legitimate reasons to open the Russia investigation in 2016, which led to Flynn’s FBI interview. The inspector general also said he didn’t find proof that the top FBI officials who opened the Flynn investigation were motivated by political bias.
McEnany exaggerates the cost and outcome of the Mueller investigation
In discussing Flynn, McEnany said: “I’ve seen a whole lot of scant information about Michael Flynn, when there was speculation about Russia, Russia, Russia, culminating in $40 million of taxpayer money being lost in a complete and total exoneration of President Trump.”
Facts First: McEnany exaggerated both the outcome of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and its cost. Mueller explicitly said that he was not giving the President a complete exoneration. And the investigation actually cost $32 million, according to figures released by the Justice Department.
Mueller’s report said that the investigation did not establish that the Trump campaign “coordinated or conspired” with Russia’s election interference. The report did, however, lay out a case that Trump may have committed obstruction of justice. It explained that Mueller would abide by a Justice Department policy that holds that a sitting President cannot be indicted.
“… while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,” the report said.
When Mueller was asked by House Judiciary chairman Jerry Nadler during congressional testimony in July 2019 if he “totally exonerate(d) the President,” Mueller simply said, “No.”
McEnany wrongly describes Trump’s tweet about Michigan protesters
McEnany was asked about Trump’s tweet on Friday morning about protesters in Michigan who oppose the state’s emergency pandemic restrictions.
Trump wrote: “The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire. These are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal.”
A reporter asked McEnany if the “very good people” remark was referring specifically to armed militia members who crowded into the state Capitol on Thursday.
Basics of social distancing
McEnany responded: “The President was referencing generally that in this country you have a First Amendment right to protest.”
Facts First: Trump’s tweet did not make any reference to the First Amendment or the general right to protest. He simply praised opponents of the restrictions – though he did not specify whether he was referring to armed militia members or any of the others – and urged Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to make concessions to them.
Trump and the intelligence community’s stance on coronavirus
When asked about a New York Times report that senior Trump administration officials have pushed intelligence agencies to find evidence supporting the theory that Covid-19 originated in a Wuhan laboratory, McEnany responded, “I can assure you that no one is pressing the intelligence community to come to a determination.”
McEnany attempted to further clarify the White House’s stance on the origins of the outbreak by suggesting that the President and the intelligence community are in agreement, despite apparent contradictions in recent statements.
Referring to a statement the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a few hours before the President took questions Thursday at the White House on coronavirus, McEnany added, “The intelligence community statement stands. It’s in perfect concert with what the President said.”
Facts First: It’s a stretch to say the intelligence community statement and the President’s recent remarks on the origin of the novel coronavirus were in “perfect” alignment. The President on Thursday told the press, without providing details, that he has seen evidence that gives him a high degree of confidence that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was the origin of the novel coronavirus. However, the public statement from ODNI said that no such assessment about the outbreak’s origins has been made as they continue to “rigorously examine” the origins of the outbreak.
While the intelligence community is looking into whether the outbreak was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan, the statement released by the ODNI, on behalf of the entire intelligence community, made it clear they do not have enough information to confidently assess whether that was the case or if the pandemic began “through contact with infected animals.”
The statement also noted that the intelligence community “concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified.”
Two weeks earlier, when asked about concerns the virus was manmade or otherwise came out of a laboratory in China, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said the evolution of the virus is “totally consistent with a jump of a species from an animal to a human.”
When pressed about his confidence in a connection between the virus and the Wuhan lab, Trump said he was “not allowed” to share the information which lead him to that conclusion.