Analysis

Trump's fixation on 270% milk tariffs, FBI texts shows how he 'cherry-picks' truths to justify actions

From the White House lawn on Friday morning, Donald Trump mischaracterized the findings of a new Justice Department report about FBI misconduct during the Hillary Clinton emails probe. Here's how the U.S. president's selective truths have worked for him so far.

'He takes that kernel of truth, he cherry-picks something — and it's repetition, repetition, repetition'

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to reporters on the lawn of the White House on Friday. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

When Donald Trump has a point, expect him to pound it into submission.

From the White House lawn on Friday morning, the U.S. President mischaracterized the findings of a new Department of Justice report about misconduct in the FBI during the Hillary Clinton emails probe. But he also told some selective truths — chiefly about some inappropriate anti-Trump texts between FBI officials outlined in the inspector general's report.

That's arguably trickier to untangle.

And that's likely just the way the president likes it, says Republican strategist Evan Siegfried.

"He takes that kernel of truth, he cherry-picks something — and it's repetition, repetition, repetition," he said. "It's all about strategically positioning himself."

The same tactic of zeroing in on one point to imply massive systemic cheating was apparently used to justify a trade war with Canada. While the larger subtext was warnings by most economists that a trade war would be self-harming, Trump latched on to an alarming-sounding statistic about Canada's levies on some dairy products.

It's misdirection disguised as conservative talking points, Siegfried said.

When it succeeds, it seems it's the only talking point that matters to the Trump faithful, pundits say, and the argument often alludes to a "deep state" conspiracy alleging a secret plot by government agents to curtail Trump's power.

Here's how Trump's selective truths have worked for him so far:


Trump's chosen fact: FBI officials exchanged biased text messages.

A report earlier this week from the U.S. Justice Department's watchdog slammed the FBI and former director James Comey for their handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation. But it did not conclude Comey's actions were motivated by political bias. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The new Justice Department report revealed that two FBI officials — an agent and a lawyer — were found to have exchanged inappropriate text messages regarding Trump in the lead-up to the 2016 election. When lawyer Lisa Page expressed concerns Trump would be elected president, agent Peter Strzok wrote back: "We'll stop him."

Trump alleged "total bias" toward him and that it's possible the entire bureau was therefore "plotting against my election."

The mental leap for the Trump faithful: An example of anti-Trump sentiment two years ago in the FBI means special counsel Robert Mueller's ongoing probe into possible Russian collusion with the Trump campaign is compromised. Mueller should be suspended.

How it's playing to Trump voters: "It's the establishment. What do they call it? The deep state," said Bill Berdan, 68, a Trump supporter from Folsom, Calif. "That's the whole intent of the whole thing: is to get in the way and thwart Trump's ability to govern or implement change."

To Berdan, the text messages are "displaying evidence of" malicious actors in the government eager to bring down Trump, he said. His wife, Kimala, added that the conspiracy "has been going on for a long time — before his presidency." She said she believes anti-Trump elements have been operating from "within the FBI, the CIA, the Senate and Congress, everybody."

Why it's not so simple: The inspector general who authored the report concluded there was no evidence Strzok abused his position to persecute the president. The report also found there was no evidence that "improper considerations, including political bias" directly affected specific investigative decision by the FBI as a whole.

Mueller removed Strzok from his team upon learning about the messages. Page told investigators the conversation was carried out on their work phones because she and Strzok were having an extra-marital affair that they were trying to keep secret from their spouses.

Critics have noted that an effort to use the highly improper text messages as evidence to suggest the entire Department of Justice is corrupt and that the FBI is out to get Trump is disingenuous.


Trump's chosen fact: Collusion is not a crime.

Robert Mueller speaks during a news conference at the FBI headquarters in Washington in this 2008 file photo. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Trump has repeated this claim in regards to questions about whether his campaign became involved with Russian agents to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential race. In an interview with The New York Times last December, Trump said: "No. 1, there is no collusion, No. 2, collusion is not a crime, but even if it was a crime, there was no collusion."

And it is true that collusion on its own is not a crime.

The mental leap for the Trump faithful: The subtext is that Mueller's probe into the potential Russian meddling in the 2016 election is a meaningless "witch hunt," and should therefore not be happening.

How it's playing to Trump voters: "There probably was some collusion going on" with the Russians, said Neal Forte, a restaurant owner and Trump voter from Hazleton, Pa., during an interview with CBC News last summer. "But is it even a crime?"

Why it's not so simple: It's still a political scandal. Whether or not collusion with the Russians can be found, the Mueller probe has, in the last 13 months, found evidence of enough crimes to lead to 20 people being charged so far. (Thirteen of those are Russian nationals.)

Also among them is former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who admitted to lying to the FBI, and Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort, charged with conspiracy to launder money and failing to register as a foreign agent, among other things. No one on Trump's campaign team has been charged with a crime directly related to Russian attempts to sway the election.


Trump's chosen fact: Canada levies a 270 per cent tariff on U.S. dairy products.

Dairy cows rest at a farm in eastern Ontario in this April 2017 file photo. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Trump tweeted last week that the U.S. tariffs on Canadian goods is "in response to" the high dairy tariffs. For example, Trump tweeted on June 10: "Fair Trade is now to be called Fool Trade if it is not Reciprocal. According to a Canada release, they make almost 100 Billion Dollars in Trade with U.S. (guess they were bragging and got caught!). Minimum is 17B. Tax Dairy from us at 270%. Then Justin acts hurt when called out!"

The mental leap for the Trump faithful: The figure seems outrageous and the U.S. should apply tariffs to Canada to retaliate. U.S. tariffs are one way to put things back on a level playing field due to a Canadian "cartel" that fixes prices on dairy, proponents of the tariffs say.

How it's playing to Trump voters: "There's an oversupply in the United States of milk. Many of our dairy producers are falling on very tough times," said Dennis Beavers, a former Alabama state director for Trump and a U.S. Department of Agriculture appointee in Tennessee. "I can tell you, we have about 230 mom-and-pop dairies being nearly driven out of the marketplace. And in Tennessee, some of it is because of unfair competition, and some of it is because of how they're being treated in the world marketplace."

Why it's not so simple: Canada operates a complicated "supply management" quota system that's meant to control prices and shelter some dairy products from competition. But it's also true that the U.S. has subsidies and protectionism.

Even if Canada's program seems unfair to Americans, using the "270 per cent" statistic to justify a trade war between two allies ignores a lucrative commercial relationship. Economists warn that a trade war will harm all involved.


Trump's chosen fact: The Trump campaign was surveilled by the FBI in 2016.

Donald Trump's 2016 election campaign was largely run out of Trump Tower in New York. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

While the FBI reportedly sent in an informant to speak with campaign advisers during Trump's 2016 campaign, the contact was only made to investigate possible links between the members of Trump's team and the Kremlin. It was not, as the president asserted, an effort to "spy" on him.

The mental leap for the Trump faithful: Trump dubbed the incident #Spygate anyway, purporting without evidence that his campaign was being targeted in order to help rival Clinton win the presidential election. Trump has tried to use the made-up scandal to bolster his argument that Mueller's investigation into his campaign's ties with Russia should be put to an end.

How it's playing to Trump voters: Although Trump's spying claims are false, the conspiracy has gained traction. On Twitter, one Trump supporter and steel fabricator from New Hampshire shared the far-right "deep state" conspiracist Tom Fitton's calls to shut down Mueller's probe. The Justice Department and FBI, the user commented, "are out of control."

Why it's not so simple: Even South Carolina congressman Trey Gowdy, a Republican firebrand who often supports Trump, dismissed the controversy after seeing some of the background documents as a member of the House Oversight Committee.

"Donald Trump was never the target of the investigation," Gowdy told Fox News, adding that the "FBI did exactly" what Trump already stated he wanted investigators to do, which was find out whether anyone connected with his campaign had colluded with Russia. "I am even more convinced that the FBI did exactly what my fellow citizens would want them to do when they got the information they got, and that it has nothing to do with Donald Trump," Gowdy said.

About the Author

Matt Kwong

Reporter

Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong

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