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Fact check: Trump attacks Washington Post over book by New York Times journalists

President Donald Trump was in a particularly combative mood during an Oval Office appearance with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö on Wednesday afternoon, ranting about the whistleblower complaint against him, Democrats and a new book about his immigration policy.

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Daniel Dale, Holmes Lybrand
Tara Subramaniam, CNN
CNN — President Donald Trump was in a particularly combative mood during an Oval Office appearance with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö on Wednesday afternoon, ranting about the whistleblower complaint against him, Democrats and a new book about his immigration policy.

Trump made some significant false claims.

The book

Trump was incensed about a New York Times article adapted from a new book, "Border Wars: Inside Trump's Assault on Immigration," that was co-authored by two Times journalists. The article and book said that Trump had proposed shooting migrants in the legs, reinforcing a border wall with a "water-filled trench, stocked with snakes or alligators," electrifying the whole wall and topping it with spikes that could pierce human flesh.

Trump denied the Times report, saying he had never said such things. And then he attacked ... The Washington Post.

"But my comms people came to me and they said, 'Sir, there's a book or something being written. It's written by Washington Post people, so you know it's inaccurate. You know it's probably a fraud,' " Trump said.

He continued: "I said, 'Well obviously it's fake because almost everything The Washington Post does is fake. It's a fake newspaper. It's owned by a rich guy [Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos] for the purposes of giving him power in Washington. It's really, I mean, it's a lobbyist. I call it the lobbyist Washington Post for Amazon."

The Post had nothing to do with the book or article.

The whistleblower

Trump described his July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky -- in which he asked Zelensky to investigate potential election opponent Joe Biden and investigate a discredited theory related to Democrats, computer servers and the 2016 election -- as "perfect" and "nice."

Trump then said: "The whistleblower wrote not that conversation. He wrote a vicious conversation. In other words, he either got it totally wrong, made it up, or the person giving the information to the whistleblower was dishonest. And this country has to find out who that person was, because that person's a spy, in my opinion."

The whistleblower's account of the call was far from "totally wrong." In fact, the whistleblower's three primary allegations about the call were correct or very close, a rough transcript released by Trump himself showed. The whistleblower had said that Trump "pressured" Zelensky to investigate Biden and his son Hunter Biden, to help in locating Democratic computer servers and to speak with Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr.

Trump can argue that he was making friendly requests, not applying pressure, but he did make all three requests.

The whistleblower also alleged that Trump suggested Zelensky might want to keep the country's prosecutor general, Yuriy Lutsenko, on the job. The rough transcript does not show Trump saying this.

We won't fact-check Trump's claim that the whistleblower's sources qualify as spies, since this is an opinion.

It's worth noting a few things, though: The whistleblower complaint cites Trump's own "White House officials" as sources. Federal whistleblower law is intended to allow employees to expose wrongdoing without suffering adverse consequences. And not all of the whistleblower's allegations came from information gleaned from others.

According to a statement from Michael Atkinson, the Trump-appointed inspector general of the intelligence community, the whistleblower had "direct knowledge of certain alleged conduct."

So while the whistleblower got the mostly accurate information about the call secondhand -- from "White House officials who had direct knowledge of the call," according to the whistleblower complaint -- it's not true that the whole complaint relies on secondhand information, as Trump alleged on Tuesday.

The call itself

Trump said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina had told him that he was "nice" on the call. Graham, he said, told him, "You never asked him for anything."

We can't fact-check how nice or not-nice Trump was to Zelensky, but it's flat false that he never asked Zelensky for anything. Again, Trump asked him to look into Biden and the situation with the server and to speak with Giuliani and Barr. In fact, prior to launching into the request about the server, Trump said, "I would like you to do us a favor though."

"There's a lot of talk about Biden's son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great," Trump said at one point in the call, the rough transcript shows.

"Rudy very much knows what's happening and he is a very capable guy. If you could speak to him that would be great," he said at another.

"Whatever you can do, it's very important that you do it if that's possible," he said after talking about the server and criticizing former special counsel Robert Mueller.

Rep. Adam Schiff and 'treason'

Trump again lambasted the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee for his rendition of Trump's July phone call with the President of Ukraine.

"And frankly, they should look at him for treason because he is making up the words of the President of the United States -- not only words but the meaning -- and it's a disgrace. It should not be allowed to happen," Trump said. He also said, "It should be criminal, it should be treasonous."

We have explained how Schiff's version of the call, which the California Democrat claimed was partly a "parody," was confusing and sometimes exaggerated -- though Schiff did say that he was providing the "essence" of the call, not a verbatim recitation.

Regardless, none of this is anything close to "treason," a word with an actual, narrow definition in the Constitution: "Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort."

And none of this is illegal at all. As we explained in this fact check, the Constitution has a clause that protects members of Congress from legal consequences for things they say in the course of official congressional proceedings.

This story will be updated.

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