Fact Check Friday: White House briefing whoppers

From the border wall to Michael Flynn, the false claims made at the briefing.

December 21, 2018, 6:47 PM

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders returned to the podium this week for the first White House briefing in over a month.

The briefing came on the same day that President Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was supposed to be sentenced and amid uncertainty over whether the government would shut down over the president’s demand for $5 billion to fund a border wall.

After Sanders stepped up to the podium to take questions, she made some fact-challenged claims.

This Fact Check Friday takes a closer look.

Mike Flynn’s lies "have nothing to do" with the president

Sanders faced multiple questions about Flynn. She argued that his crimes don’t involve the president.

When asked if he was concerned about one of his top aides lying, Sanders said, “Not when it comes to things that have anything to do with the president. The activities that he is said to -- and again we'll let the court make that determination -- to have engaged in don't have anything to do with the president.”

Earlier in the day, President Trump tweeted "good luck" to Flynn on the day he was scheduled to be sentenced for lying to the FBI about his conversations with a Russian ambassador and talks related to sanctions on Russia.

Judge Emmet Sullivan issued a blistering rebuke of Flynn, highlighting that he had lied to the FBI “in the White House! In the West Wing."

When it seemed that the retired Army lieutenant general might be headed to prison, Flynn ultimately asked that his sentencing be postponed and the judge agreed.

Hours later, in the briefing room, Sanders said: "Any actions he engaged in had nothing to do with the president. That just because maybe he did do those things but that doesn’t have anything to do with the president directly."

PHOTO: White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders pauses during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, Dec. 18, 2018.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders pauses during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, Dec. 18, 2018.
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

There are a few problems with those statements. Flynn pleaded guilty to a crime he committed while working for the Trump administration and for conversations he had while serving as a senior adviser to Trump.

A court filing by Flynn’s own defense team says Flynn “served as a surrogate and national security adviser for the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump, as a senior member of President-Elect Trump's Transition Team, and as the national security adviser to President Trump.”

Sanders’ predecessor as press secretary, Sean Spicer, said that one of the calls between Flynn and then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak "centered around the logistics of setting up a call with the president of Russia and the president-elect after he was sworn in."

ABC News would later report that Flynn was prepared to tell the special counsel that Trump had directed him to contact the Russian ambassador.

So clearly, they had to do with the president. He wouldn’t have been in a position to have the conversations if he weren't working for Trump. Flynn has done 19 interviews with special counsel Robert Mueller’s office, an investigation that in part seems to be getting closer and closer to Trump.

The FBI "ambushed" Michael Flynn

Sanders also dug in on a claim the president has previously made that the FBI mishandled Flynn's questioning.

In a sentencing memo, Flynn’s defense attorney Robert Kelner claimed that the FBI misled Flynn about their meeting in February 2017 where the retired general lied.

At the briefing, Sanders said, “What we do know that was inappropriate by own self-admittance of James Comey is that the FBI broke standard protocol in the way that they came in and ambushed general Flynn and in the way that they questioned him and in the way that they encouraged him not to have White House Counsel's office present."

We can look at Flynn’s own tense court appearance this week to debunk this.

Judge Emmett Sullivan asked Flynn if the FBI had misled him.

Flynn said, "No, your honor."

When the judge asked Flynn’s defense attorney if he believed Flynn was entrapped by the FBI, the attorney said, "No, your honor."

The attorney added that Flynn "fully accepts responsibility and stands by his guilty plea based on knowing and willful information."

PHOTO: President Donald Trump talks to the media before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House, Nov. 9, 2018, in Washington.
President Donald Trump talks to the media before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House, Nov. 9, 2018, in Washington.
Evan Vucci/AP

The USMCA will pay for the wall

The White House sent mixed messages this week about how the president expects to fund the border wall he’s promised to build. The president is now back to demanding that Congress approve $5 billion in border security funding but earlier this week he indicated that the White House would search for the funding in other places besides Congress.

When pressed by ABC News’ Terry Moran about where that money would come from, Sanders said it could partially come from revenue generated by the USMCA, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. That’s the agreement meant to replace NAFTA.

"We are looking at existing funding through other agencies right now that we can draw on to do that immediately. The president’s been clear, the president has been clear that the USMCA deal would provide additional revenue through that deal that would show that Mexico is paying for the wall," Sanders told Moran.

"He's saying that the revenue provided and the money that would be saved through the USMCA deal we could pay for the wall four times over and by doing that new trade deal we have the opportunity to pay for the wall," Sanders added.

We’ve fact-checked this before but it’s worth doing again.

For starters, the USMCA has not been approved by Congress so there wouldn’t be any immediate revenue coming from it. Secondly, if the USMCA was in effect, the money would go to private citizens and not directly to the government. When pressed about how the math would work that it would fund the wall, Sanders didn’t have concrete numbers.

The USMCA deal also has no specific stipulations about the border wall or any requirements that Mexico help provide funding for the wall.

ABC News’ Alex Mallin, Ben Siegel, Katherine Faulders and Mike Levine contributed to this report.

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