Did Sarah Sanders lie to the Special Counsel?

To serve Trump, Sarah Sanders lied repeatedly about James Comey having lost the confidence of the rank and file FBI. Despite her claim that it was a “slip of the tongue” utter in the “heat of the moment”, it was, in fact, a lie she repeated on successive days *even though she knew it has no basis in fact*. She might have believed that she could never be caught in her lie because she believed that only she would be able to verify it. What she failed to understand was that severity of her lie, a direct attack on the FBI’s integrity by the White House’s Deputy Press Secretary, would guarantee that someone would take the time to verify her claim. Before we consider whether she lied to the Special Counsel, we need to understand what she said.

When Sarah Sanders claimed on more than one occasion that Comey had lost the confidence of the rank and file FBI agents, she probably thought no one could verify her claims. She also believed that her claim, it was a “slip of the tongue” would be an acceptable defence.  The first “slip of the tongue” occurred on 10 May 2017. (I’ve emphasized key passages.)

Q    What gives you such confidence that the rank and file within the Bureau lost faith in the FBI Director?  There’s a special agent who is inside, who wrote us, who said:  “The vast majority of the Bureau is in favor of Director Comey.  This is a total shock.  This is not supposed to happen.  The real losers here are 20,000 front-line people in the organization because they lost the only guy working here in the past 15 years who actually cared about them.”

So what’s your response to these rank-and-file FBI agents who disagree with your contention that they lost faith in Director Comey?

SANDERS:  Look, we’ve heard from countless members of the FBI that say very different things.  In fact, the President will be meeting with Acting Director McCabe later today to discuss that very thing — the morale at the FBI — as well as make an offer to go directly to the FBI if he feels that that’s necessary and appropriate.  And we’ll certainly provide further information on that meeting for you guys. [Emphasis added] https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/daily-press-briefing-principal-deputy-press-secretary-sarah-sanders-051017/

The section on Andrew McCabe is highlighted because the following day 11 May 2017 we find that Andrew McCabe had not confirmed the President’s claim nor Sarah Sanders’ claim.

On 11 May 2017 she repeated the claim about countless FBI members which undermines her statement that it was a “slip of the tongue” said in the “heat of the moment”. Unless her tongue slips daily and she has heats of the moment daily? The next day, knowing that her first comment was a “slip of the tongue”, she must have known that it had no basis in fact so she expanded on the lie.

Q    Sarah, you said from the podium yesterday that Director Comey had lost the confidence of the rank and file of the FBI.  On Capitol Hill today, the Acting Director of the FBI Andrew McCabe directly contradicted that.  What led you and the White House to believe that he had lost the confidence of the rank and file of the FBI when the Acting Director says it’s exactly the opposite? [Emphasis added].

    1. SANDERS: Well, I can speak to my own personal experience. I’ve heard from countless members of the FBI that are grateful and thankful for the President’s decision.  And I think that we may have to agree to disagree.  I’m sure that there are some people that are disappointed, but I 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.

And in response to a follow up question, which mentions the previous day’s claims.

Q    And one last question, just to follow up on the FBI thing.  And I’m not trying to be overly combative here, but you said now today, and I think you said again yesterday, that you personally have talked to countless FBI officials, employees, since this happened.

SANDERS: Correct.

Q    I mean, really?  So are we talking —

SANDERS: Between like email, text messages — absolutely.

Q    Like 50?

SANDERS: Yes.

Q    Sixty, seventy?

SANDERS: 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. [Emphasis added.]

https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/press-briefing-principal-deputy-press-secretary-sarah-sanders-homeland-security-advisor-tom-bossert-051117/

What is clear from the statements is the only thing true about the above is that she does not know many people in the FBI. If she did, she would know that as a rule they are discrete because their jobs rely on their ability to be discrete, professional, dispassionate, and above all honest. J. Edgar Hoover may have had his flaws but he ensured his agents acted with utmost integrity and probity. The contrast with the Trump Administration could not be greater. The two institutions are the antithesis of each other.

For the White House’s Deputy Press Secretary to claim that “countless” or at least 50 FBI employees through email and text messages told her they were unhappy or that they had lost confidence in Director Comey was a direct attack on the FBI’s integrity. By her public statement, she was undermining the FBI’s integrity. Her lie was attacking the country’s preeminent law enforcement agency and the key agency for investigating Federal crimes such as those that might have been committed by the Trump Administration and its “friends”.

She obviously did not know many FBI employees or understand the Agency since her claim was going to draw intense scrutiny within the FBI. Aside from the attack on the FBI’s integrity, it would raise alarm bells. Why? First, there are very few FBI agents who are going to be in contact, occasional contact, or even social contact with the Deputy Press Secretary. The two institutions do not mingle and FBI agents, while not avoiding the White House, know to keep it at an arm’s length because the ease with which they can become politicized no matter who is in the White House. Second, FBI agents are discrete. They are not going to be sending emails and text messages to Sarah Sanders bitching and moaning about the Director *even if they are not happy*. There might be one, but “countless” or at least “50” is bordering on the impossible.

When she made that claim, she ensured it would guarantee a forensic analysis to determine its veracity. It would guarantee a forensic analysis because it was the one part of her claim that could be verified. That opportunity arose in the Special Counsel’s investigation.

Had Sarah Sanders left her claim vague, she might have gotten away with it. Even then it would be doubtful because the Special Counsel would ask her to verify the claims by naming the FBI agents or producing the evidence for her claim. At that point, she could either refuse to name them or claim she forgot who they were. Instead, she did something that ensured she would be caught in her lie, which showed she had no understanding of how the FBI works or how damaging he lie was and why it would be taken so seriously. She claimed she had received emails and text messages showing that FBI employees had lost confidence in Director Comey. When she did this, she had said something that could be verified.

The Special Counsel would be able to scan her electronic communications and those of the FBI to see if there had been any emails between her and any FBI agent. If someone had sent her an email or a text message, it would have been found either on the White House system or the FBI system. From a basic records management perspective various federal laws ensure that email and text messages within the White House and the FBI are retained.[1] Even if Trump White House staffers may believe those laws do not apply to them[2], the FBI employees know their communications are subject to these laws and the additional monitoring by FBI counter intelligence surveillance as well as the FBI’s internal audit functions.

When the Special Counsel’s investigators interviewed Sarah Sanders, they probably had verified her claims. They knew they were false because there was no evidence for them. Under the penalty of the law, she told the truth—her statements had no basis in fact.

“Sanders told this office that her reference to hearing from ‘countless members of the FBI’ was a ‘slip of the tongue.’ 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.” (Vol. II, page 72) https://viewfromll2.files.wordpress.com/2019/04/mueller-report.pdf

Curiously, the Special Counsel’s report is based on her May 10th statement and does not mention the May 11th Press Briefing where she repeated the claim about FBI employees contacting her and expanded it to say at least 50 FBI employees had contacted her. If her first statement was a slip of the tongue, then to repeat it and expand on it, knowing that the previous day was a “slip of the tongue” means that the second day could not be a “slip of the tongue” said in the “heat of the moment.” If that was the case she could have simply said “I stand by what I said yesterday, we need to move on” or even what she did say too late “I mean, I don’t know what I else I can say”. Instead, she repeated it and expanded on it.

Perhaps, the Special Counsel will revisit her statement regarding her claim that it was a “slip of the tongue” said in the “heat of the moment” to see if she is eligible for a perjury charge. If it was really a slip of the tongue on the 10th of May then why did she expand on it on the 11th of May insisting that at least 50 FBI employees had contacted her by email and text? She intended her claim that at least 50 FBI employees had contacted and was not an intended statement not said in the “heat of the moment” or a “slip of the tongue.”

What is clear is that Sarah Sanders lied to the Press. She attacked the integrity of the FBI. Above all, she lied to the Public. What remains to be seen is whether the Special Counsel decides if she lied to his investigators. If she has, then she could face something worse than having to resign. She could face a criminal sanction for perjury.

[1] https://www.archives.gov/records-mgmt/toolkit/fbi/rma-current-state.html and https://www.voanews.com/a/us-justice-department-suggests-fbi-text-message-retention-improvements/4783420.html and https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/02/white-house-secret-messages/516792/

[2] https://people.com/politics/white-house-aides-tape-documents-trump-rips-up/ and https://www.politico.com/story/2018/06/10/trump-papers-filing-system-635164 and https://splinternews.com/the-white-house-made-an-entire-office-tape-trumps-paper-1826720913

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About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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