White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders acknowledged to investigators with special counsel Robert Mueller's team that she misled reporters when she insisted in May 2017 that "countless" FBI agents had lost confidence in former Director James Comey leading up to his dismissal.
The special counsel's report, released Thursday, cited Sanders’s multiple false statements to reporters as part of its review of whether President Trump obstructed justice in firing Comey. Sanders told investigators that her misstatements were a "slip of the tongue,” and that the claims were not founded on anything.
In a draft termination letter, Trump cited low morale within the bureau in his reasoning for firing Comey on May 9, 2017. The next day, Sanders, then the deputy press secretary, spoke to Trump about his decision before a press briefing with reporters, Mueller wrote.
"The president, over the last several months, lost confidence in Director Comey," Sanders said in an opening statement at the May 10 briefing. "The DOJ [Department of Justice] lost confidence in Director Comey. Bipartisan members of Congress made it clear that they had lost confidence in Director Comey. And most importantly, the rank and file of the FBI had lost confidence in their director.
"Accordingly, the president accepted the recommendation of his deputy attorney general to remove James Comey from his position," she added.
After a reporter noted that they'd heard from an FBI agent who expressed disappointment with Comey's firing, Sanders again insisted that "we've heard from countless members of the FBI that say very different things."
Mueller wrote in his report that Sanders spoke to Trump following the briefing, and that the president praised her work "and did not point out any inaccuracies in her comments."
While not cited in the report, Sanders doubled down on her assertion in a May 11, 2017, press briefing. Michael Shear of The New York Times questioned whether she had really spoken to "countless" FBI employees.
"Between, like, email, text messages, absolutely. Yes," Sanders said. "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."
Sanders, who is now Trump’s chief spokeswoman, admitted to her misstatements to reporters in an interview with the special counsel's office, according to Mueller's report.
"Sanders told this Office that her reference to hearing from 'countless members of the FBI' was a 'slip of the tongue,'" Mueller wrote. "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."
Trump has faced criticism for repeatedly making inaccurate claims on Twitter, during campaign rallies and in interviews. The Washington Post has maintained a running list of Trump's false statements since his presidency began, reporting that the president has made 9,451 false or misleading claims as of April 1.
Sanders came under scrutiny last year when Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani contradicted her assertion that the president was unaware of hush money payments to cover up an alleged affair.
“We give the best information that we have at the time,” Sanders said at a press conference in response to questions about whether the public could trust the administration to tell the truth.
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