White House spokesman Sarah Huckabee Sanders made baseless claims to the media about the firing of FBI Director James Comey, according to special counsel Robert Mueller's report.
The false statements were delivered on more than one occasion, investigators noted.
Sanders didn't publicly correct the record. But she eventually backtracked -- more than a year later -- when questioned by investigators.
"Sanders told this Office [of special counsel] that her reference to hearing from 'countless members of the FBI' was a 'slip of the tongue,'" the report states. "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."
The report doesn't say when this separate interview occurred.
Sanders, White House press secretary since July 2017, was one of several White House officials interviewed as part of an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections as well as potential obstruction of justice.
Mueller found no evidence of collusion by President Donald Trump or his campaign. The special counsel didn't weigh in on whether obstruction of justice had occurred.
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The report makes clear that Comey was ousted because Trump wanted him gone.
The president has said as much himself.
But initially, Sanders portrayed the firing as the result of widespread dissatisfaction with Comey.
Sanders informed reporters at the May 10, 2017, daily briefing, one day after Comey's dismissal, that "the rank and file of the FBI had lost confidence in their director."
Told that an FBI special agent was claiming that a "vast majority" of the bureau supported Comey, Sanders replied: "Look, we've heard from countless members of the FBI that say very different things."
At the next day's press briefing, Sanders reiterated that Comey had lost the support of bureau employees. The report doesn't explicitly mention the May 11 daily briefing quotes.
And she claimed those FBI employees had been contacting her.
"I've heard from countless members of the FBI that are grateful and thankful for the president's decision," she said. "I'm sure that there are some people that are disappointed, but I've certainly heard from a large number of individuals -- and that's just myself -- and I don't even know that many people in the FBI."
Asked to quantify the number of contacts, Sanders said "countless" would be a "correct" characterization.
"Between like email, text messages. Absolutely," she said.
"Like 50?" the reporter asked.
"Yes," Sanders replied.
When asked whether the number was even higher -- 60 or 70 -- Sanders replied: "Look, we're not going to get into a numbers game. I mean, I have heard from a large number of individuals that work at the FBI that said that they're very happy with the president's decision. I mean, I don't know what I else I can say."
At the May 10 daily briefing, Sanders had portrayed Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein as the driving force behind Comey's ouster, saying Rosenstein had decided "on his own" to review Comey's job performance and to go to the president with his concerns about Comey's fitness for office.
But the Mueller report says Trump had already decided to fire Comey and that Rosenstein had been acting at the president's direction.
After watching the White House spin Comey's ouster, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Rosenstein both "expressed concern" that an incorrect narrative was being presented, according to the report.
They weren't alone.
"The White House Counsel's Office agreed that it was factually wrong to say that the Department of Justice had initiated Comey's termination," the report states.
That wasn't the only instance where Sanders' version of events was contradicted by people close to the president.
When reporters for The New York Times learned that Donald Trump Jr. had met with Russians in 2016 to discuss "information that would incriminate [Democratic presidential candidate] Hillary [Clinton]," his father helped to craft a statement characterizing the nature of the meeting.
Sanders later told reporters that Trump Sr. had "weighed in, offered suggestions like any father would do" but "certainly didn't dictate" the statement.
"Several months later," the report notes, "the President's personal counsel stated in a private communication to the Special Counsel's Office that 'the President dictated a short but accurate response to the New York Times article on behalf of his son, Donald Trump, Jr.'"
A Section on 04/19/2019
Print Headline: Report notes Sanders' Comey claims as false