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As FBI Director James Comey was in the hot seat, being grilled on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, the White House was busy trolling him on Twitter.
The official White House account was used to tap out a series of tweets Monday trying to shift the focus to problematic leaks instead of what they’d revealed. But several times the tweets from the White House account appeared to go too far, misrepresenting Comey’s testimony in obvious ways.
The episode resulted in a real-time fact-checking of President Donald Trump by the FBI director — an unprecedented moment that put a sharp focus on a pattern of misstatements and mischaracterizations by the White House.
In one of the tweets, the White House incorrectly claimed that Comey and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers had told lawmakers “that Russia did not influence electoral process.”
But the video the White House tweet included shows that wasn’t the case.
The officials had been asked specifically whether they had evidence that Russia had “changed vote tallies” in certain states, including Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida, not whether they’d influenced the election more broadly.
The NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence electoral process. pic.twitter.com/d9HqkxYBt5
— President Trump (@POTUS) March 20, 2017
Indeed, Comey made clear in his testimony that Russia had “engaged in a multifaceted campaign of active measures to undermine our democracy and hurt one of the candidates — and hope to help one of the other candidates.” He has declined to say whether that effort succeeded.
Comey was forced to correct the White House tweet in real time when Rep. Jim Himes, a Democrat from Connecticut, read it from his seat on the dais.
Comey responded by saying that certainly it “wasn’t our intention to say that today because we don’t have any information on that subject.”
In another tweet, the White House quoted Comey saying that former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was “‘right’ to say no evidence of collusion between Russia and Trump Campaign.” But again, the video accompanying the tweet makes clear that the question that prompted the response dealt specifically with the contents of a Jan. 6 report issued by the intelligence agencies — not whether evidence exists generally.
FBI Director Comey: fmr. DNI Clapper “right” to say no evidence of collusion between Russia and Trump Campaign. #ComeyHearing pic.twitter.com/MqBG2xd4s7
— President Trump (@POTUS) March 20, 2017
Himes told the Associated Press that he’d been monitoring his Twitter account on his phone during the hearing and zeroed in on the White House’s mischaracterization of Comey’s testimony.
“For two months now, I’ve been very worried about presidential credibility,” he said, arguing that, at some point, the president will have to talk frankly to the American people, explaining, for instance, why he might feel the country needs to go to war.
“I just thought it was an opportunity to try to demonstrate in very real time that there would be consequences for lying. And I think that happened,” he said.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer denied the tweets had compromised the president’s credibility.
“There’s nothing we put in those tweets that is not an accurate representation of what happened,” he said.
The president has long come under fire for rogue tweets he’s sent from his personal account, as well as misstatements by aides, including Spicer. They include the president’s unsubstantiated claim that former President Barack Obama wiretapped his phones in Trump Tower during the campaign.
Comey threw cold water on that tweet Tuesday, saying he had “no information that supports those tweets.”
But this time, they were coming from the official @POTUS account, suggesting such tweets aren’t restricted to Trump’s personal account.
Some Republicans have expressed dismay at the wiretapping allegation, describing it as a distraction from their crowded agenda.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday in an interview with the Associated Press that he’s encouraged Trump to try to stay on message, adding: “I know I’m not the only one who’s suggested maybe he’d be better off without daily tweets.”
But Trump hasn’t been responsive to the suggestion: “He just laughs. He loves his Twitter account. And I think he’s likely to continue doing it,” McConnell said.
During his joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel last Friday, the president was asked whether, from time to time, he sends tweets that he regrets.
“Very seldom,” the president said. “We have a tremendous group of people that listen, and I can get around the media when the media doesn’t tell the truth, so I like that.”
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