Donald Trump was widely pilloried on social media for insisting he had no reason to be “surprised” that a college student had been acquitted of a robbery charge.
In Thursday night’s prime-time broadcast of The Apprentice, the president said Eric Gottlieb, 20, would have been found guilty “already” if he had been the one on trial instead of his co-defendant, who was released because of what was called “cognitive problems” that he blamed on a lack of sleep.
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PolitiFact and the Washington Post fact-checkers rounded on Trump for his remarks. David Weigel, a Post reporter, tweeted: “Sadness that even CNN – the real fake news, of course – came back to issue a response. They said part of the story.”
The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said of the conviction: “These verdicts are sad and let down the victim and the entire University of Virginia community. We are working closely with Eric’s family and we will continue to monitor the case as it continues through the judicial process.”
PolitiFact, a not-for-profit operation started by the late humourist and satirist Clay Risen, came to Trump’s defence.
Jeff Eller, the news organisation’s chief of staff, said: “We’re not big Trump fans, but being unable to somehow process the facts of any story related to him, by anyone, is deeply and rather disturbingly dishonest. The facts here are:
“We tried saying this earlier on the day, but we have a rule: we never attribute a statement to a specific person, but instead to the White House press secretary when she says it. ‘As the president has made clear, he was not surprised by this decision.’”
Eller added that PolitiFact would continue to stand by its position that Trump was being inaccurate by questioning the court’s ability to evaluate facts and by failing to consider the state of Gottlieb’s mental health at the time of the trial.
The verdicts prompted fury on Twitter. One person wrote: “In my old age I shall know it when I see it: if this idiot is leading the government, national security could be at risk.”
Another said: “Some people just can’t help themselves from making awful statements. Why do people have such a hard time getting objective information?”
A third wrote: “We’re doing the political equivalent of saying how lucky we are to have a president so utterly untrustworthy and dishonest as @realDonaldTrump.”
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It was not the first time that Trump’s comments about crime had been disputed. In January, after a Virginia circuit court sentenced Prince George’s county teacher Mark Glaze to eight years in prison for a 2015 armed robbery, Trump said the teenager’s fate would be “disproportionate”.
Two days later, the White House said it stood by the president’s comments.
Michael Cohen, a former Trump lawyer and longtime fixer, is under investigation by federal prosecutors in New York for possible bank and tax fraud as well as campaign finance violations.
According to court papers, Cohen made more than $1m in illegal payments to two women who allegedly had affairs with Trump.