Fact-checking Donald Trump, Joe Biden in head-to-head town halls
Posted October 16, 2020 9:02 a.m. EDT
Updated October 16, 2020 12:03 p.m. EDT
It was supposed to be the second presidential debate. Instead, President Donald Trump refused a virtual debate and followed Joe Biden’s lead of doing a town hall on network television.
NBC host Savannah Guthrie started the Trump town hall by trying to nail down his last negative test for the coronavirus.
He said he couldn’t remember and went on to repeat a number of falsehoods and exaggerations — some old, some new — about the state of the crisis, the efficacy of face masks and pandemic-driven immigration restrictions.
Over on ABC with George Stephanopoulos, Biden had harsh criticism for Trump’s track record on COVID-19, focusing on Trump’s failure to give people more warning in March and April, as well as Trump’s failure to lead on masks or the acquisition of personal protective equipment. Biden gave lengthy answers to voter questions on systemic racism, policing, income inequality, climate change and the Supreme Court.
Here’s what the candidates said on key issues, fact-checked in one place.
Trump: "Just the other day, they came out with a statement that 85% of the people that wear masks catch it."
A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked at situations that put people at risk for COVID-19, using a small survey of 314 people. The report showed a correlation between testing positive for the coronavirus and going to bars and restaurants, where masks can’t be effectively worn. It did not look at the odds of mask wearers catching the disease. More importantly, the strategy of mask wearing is less about protecting the wearer and more about preventing the spread of the virus. Experts say they offer the wearer some — but not total — protection.
Trump: With COVID-19, "We have done an amazing job, and it's rounding the corner."
This is misleading. There has been progress in treating the disease, and vaccine development is moving forward. But cases and hospitalizations are increasing. The country just saw the number of new cases go over 60,000 in a single day, a number not reached since early August. Hospitalizations, a more serious indication of the virus’s impact, have started rising steadily.
Trump: After being told his administration curtailed DACA, "What happened is because of the pandemic, much changed on the immigration front. Mexico is heavily infected, as you know, and we've made it very, very difficult to come in because of the pandemic and other reasons, and crime."
Trump’s attempt to end the Obama-era program Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals started in 2017, his first year in office, way before the coronavirus pandemic. Legal challenges to Trump’s efforts have left that program in place, with some caveats. The administration is required to process renewal applications for immigrants who have been granted DACA and want to renew it. However, immigrants who have never had DACA are not allowed to file an application seeking the protection for the first time.
The Trump administration has also reduced the length of the DACA protection, from two years to one. DACA does not benefit people who are newly arriving at the border. To have been eligible for DACA, people had to be continuously in the United States since June 15, 2007, and have no felony convictions, among other criteria.
Trump: Says Biden "called me xenophobic and racist" over a restriction on travel from China.
Rating: Mostly False
Biden has not directly said that the travel restrictions were xenophobic. Around the time the Trump administration announced the travel restriction, Biden said that Trump had a "record of hysteria, xenophobia, and fear-mongering." Biden used the phrase "xenophobic" in reply to a Trump tweet about limiting entry to travelers from China and in which Trump described the coronavirus as the "Chinese virus." Biden did not specify which part of Trump’s tweet was xenophobic.
Biden: Says Trump said people should "inject bleach in your arm and that’s going to work. I’m not being facetious; he actually said these things."
Trump said something like this, but his comments weren’t as clear as Biden suggests. Here’s Trump’s direct quote from April 23: "And then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in one minute. And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning, because you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it’d be interesting to check that, so that you’re going to have to use medical doctors with, but it sounds interesting to me."
Regardless of what Trump actually meant, his remarks caused some companies and state agencies to issue warnings about ingesting disinfectants.
The maker of Lysol said in a statement that "under no circumstance" should its products be used in the human body.
White supremacy and conspiracy theories
When Guthrie asked Trump about white supremacy and conspiracy theories, Trump cut her off, saying, "You always do this," and asking why NBC didn’t ask Biden if he denounced antifa. Guthrie asked whether he would "once and for all" state that the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory is not true, but Trump declined, saying he knew nothing about it but did know about the "vicious" and "radical left." Guthrie asked why he promoted the "lie" that Biden worked to have Navy SEAL Team Six killed in order to cover up a failed Iran deal and the faked death of Osama bin Laden.
Trump: "I know nothing about it … That was a retweet. That was an opinion of somebody. And that was a retweet. I’ll put it out there, people can decide for themselves. I don’t take a position."
The conspiracy theory Trump shared rates Pants on Fire; it isn’t up for debate. Two military investigations determined the 2011 crash that killed 15 members of SEAL Team Six happened as the result of a grenade shot by the Taliban. Osama bin Laden was killed in a 2012 SEAL Team Six raid.
Trump: "Why doesn’t (Biden) condemn antifa?"
Biden has condemned antifa, a term used for a collection of far-left, anti-fascist groups that rally against white supremacy and other causes, at times resorting to violence. A reporter for WGAL, an NBC affiliate in Pennsylvania, asked Biden in September whether he condemned antifa. "Yes, I do, violence no matter who it is," Biden said. Biden on several occasions also has denounced violence, arson and looting tied to protests against police brutality.
Trump: "I know nothing about QAnon. … I do know they are very much against pedophilia. They fight it very hard. But I know nothing about it."
Trump has amplified QAnon accounts on Twitter and supported political candidates who subscribe to the conspiracy theory, which claims Democrats and celebrities are Satan-worshipping, cannibalistic pedophiles.
Reporters have asked Trump about QAnon several times. At an Aug. 19 press conference, Trump said he didn’t know much about QAnon, "other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate."
Trump said the movement was gaining popularity and that its supporters "don’t like what they’re seeing, what’s going on in places like Portland, in places like Chicago and New York and other cities and states. And I’ve heard these are people that love our country and they just don’t like seeing it."
Trump: "We had the greatest economy in the history of our country last year."
Before the pandemic, the unemployment rate plunged to levels that it hasn’t touched since the early 1950s. But growth in the nation’s gross domestic product — probably the single most important statistic used to gauge the overall strength of the economy — has been so-so on Trump’s watch. It never reached the 4% he promised, and once you consider the impact of population growth and inflation, the economy ranks 16th compared with past years. Wage growth was much less than the 2% per year during the 1960s. Finally, unlike periods of growth in the 1960s and 1990s, the federal budget deficit grew.
Trump: "I have done more for the African American community than any president, with the exception of Abraham Lincoln."
This needs a significant amount of context. Before the pandemic hit the economy, Trump could point to historically low Black unemployment rates. Since then, however, job losses have fallen disproportionately on the Black community. Setting the pandemic aside, Trump overlooks the groundbreaking laws passed during the years of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Historians rank the gains made under Johnson second only to Lincoln. The Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act protected civil, political and economic rights for Black people that had been denied for over a century.
Trump did sign a sweeping criminal justice bill. It passed with full Democratic support, and it built upon the reforms launched by President Barack Obama. Among other steps, Obama signed a law to reduce sentencing disparities between powder and crack cocaine, he banned federal agencies from initially asking job applicants about past convictions, and he pushed for police reforms to improve safety and reduce unnecessary arrests and shootings.
Trump: "Car companies are moving into Michigan, into Ohio, into South Carolina and North Carolina."
This exaggerates. Trump is correct about Michigan — Fiat Chrysler announced plans for a new plant there in 2019 — and he could have mentioned Alabama and the Toyota-Mazda joint venture announced there in 2018.
Beyond those two, the facts tell a different story. In Ohio, there have been investments in existing plants, but no new assembly plants built. A Volvo complex in South Carolina was announced in 2015, which preceded Trump policies and the 2017 tax law. We can find no example of a new assembly plant announced in North Carolina. We reached out to the Trump campaign and are waiting to hear back.
Trump: "We gave you the greatest tax cuts in the history of our country."
The "greatest" tax cuts is subjective, but the tax bill Trump signed in 2017 was not the biggest ever, as the president has frequently asserted. The Joint Committee on Taxation — Congress’s nonpartisan arbiter of tax analysis — said the 2017 tax bill would cost the government (or save taxpayers) about $1.5 trillion over 10 years, or about $150 billion a year. Several bills since 1980 were larger, according to the Treasury Department, measured not only by contemporary dollars but also by inflation-adjusted dollars and as a percentage of gross domestic product, which is a measure of the size of the overall economy. In inflation-adjusted dollars, the 2017 tax bill is the fourth-largest since 1940. And as a percentage of GDP, it ranks seventh.
Biden: Says Trump in effect told the U.S. Justice Department, "I’m being sued because a woman accused me of rape. Represent me. Personally represent me in the state of New York on not allowing my tax returns (to be disclosed.)"
This is accurate but needs explanation. In September, the Justice Department filed papers seeking to defend Trump in a defamation lawsuit by E. Jean Carroll who accused Trump of raping her in the 1990s in a department store. Carroll wrote about her claim in a memoir last year. Trump denied the rape allegation in June 2019 and said Carroll was "totally lying." Carroll, a journalist, sued Trump in November in New York state court saying he damaged her reputation.
In the court filing, the Justice Department argued that it should be able to represent Trump because the president was acting within the scope of his public office when he denied the allegation. The department asked the court to make the U.S. government the defendant rather than Trump.
Carroll’s lawyers have fought against the Justice Department intervening in the case, which is now in federal court.
In the tax case, in 2019 the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York filed a statement of interest to Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.’s subpoena for Trump’s tax returns. Federal prosecutors wrote that there were "serious constitutional issues at stake in this proceeding." The district attorney called the move a delay tactic. In October, a federal appeals panel ruled that the district attorney can proceed with the subpoenas. The Justice Department said it was reviewing the ruling.
Biden: "They eliminated the funding for community policing."
At the town hall, Biden touted the Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, program, which was enacted as part of the 1994 crime bill. The 1994 bill, which Biden spearheaded, included some provisions on prosecution and sentencing that have recently been criticized for exacerbating criminal justice disparities for minority groups. But Biden highlighted other parts of the law that have been more popular.
The idea behind community policing was to develop new policing strategies focused on engaging officers members of the community on their beat, rather than seeming like an occupying force.
However, Biden exaggerated when he said that funding for the program was "eliminated." (He was vague about who eliminated the funding, and when.) While the program is smaller than it was in its early years, when its budget ranged between $1.2 billion and $1.6 billion, it was never zeroed out. Since 2012, which was under the Obama-Biden administration, funding has been around $200 million a year.
Biden’s campaign told PolitiFact that he was referring to Trump’s fiscal 2019 budget proposal, which would have halved funding for the community policing program. But this wasn’t enacted, and did not amount to an elimination.
Trump: "But criminal justice reform, everybody said it could not be done. President Obama and Biden never even tried to do it."
After the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Obama created a task force to specifically identify better policing practices. The task force issued its final report in May 2015, after holding public listening sessions across the country and getting testimony and recommendations from community and faith leaders, law enforcement officers, academics, and others.
In 2016, the Justice Department under Obama said it would continue to help implement the task force's findings and train law enforcement agents to recognize and address implicit bias, unconscious or subtle associations that individuals make between groups of people and stereotypes about those groups. The Obama administration also investigated patterns or practices of misconduct in police departments and entered into court-binding agreements that require departments to correct misconduct.
Biden: Says he didn’t label the Green New Deal a "crucial framework," but used that term to describe his own plan, which differs from the Green New Deal.
During a discussion of climate change, Stephanopoulos said that Biden had called the Green New Deal a "crucial framework." Biden disagreed, saying, "My deal is a crucial framework," because his proposal was more realistic.
This gets things wrong on two fronts.
First, an issue page on Biden’s own campaign website does use the term "crucial framework" to describe the Green New Deal.
"Biden believes the Green New Deal is a crucial framework for meeting the climate challenges we face," the campaign web page says. "It powerfully captures two basic truths, which are at the core of his plan: (1) the United States urgently needs to embrace greater ambition on an epic scale to meet the scope of this challenge, and (2) our environment and our economy are completely and totally connected."
Second, during the town hall, Biden characterized the Green New Deal as calling "for elimination of all non-renewable energy by 2030. You can't get there. You're going to need to be able to transition." By contrast, Biden's plan would set a goal of "net-zero emissions no later than 2050."
Biden’s summary of the Green New Deal was incorrect. The 2019 Green New Deal resolution sponsored by Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., called for "global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from human sources of 40% to 60% from 2010 levels by 2030, and net-zero global emissions by 2050."
This means Biden’s plan and the Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal are essentially in accord on the timeline for net-zero emissions.
Instead, the biggest contrast between the two plans come on issues distinct from climate change, such as universal access to high-quality health care and affordable housing. While Biden supports some of these goals, his climate plan doesn’t specifically include them.
The Biden campaign told PolitiFact that Biden acknowledges that the Green New Deal is a crucial framework to arrange thinking on climate because it articulates an urgent need for action and the interconnectedness of environmental and economic issues. But the campaign said his plan remains his own.
The Supreme Court
Biden: Amy Coney Barrett "didn’t answer very many questions at all, and I don’t even think she has laid out much of a judicial philosophy."
This is inaccurate. During confirmation hearings, Barrett has not given direct answers to some questions such as whether a president can pardon himself, but she has made comments that show her judicial philosophy.
On Oct. 13, Barrett testified that she is an originalist. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked her to explain what that means. "That means that I interpret the Constitution as a law, that I interpret its text as text, and I understand it to have the meaning that it had at the time people ratified it. So that meaning doesn’t change over time, and it’s not up to me to update it or infuse my own policy views into it," she said.
Barrett said that she shared Justice Antonin Scalia’s philosophy. "I would say that Justice Scalia was obviously a mentor, and as I said when I accepted the president’s nomination, that his philosophy is mine too," she said. "He was a very eloquent defender of originalism, And that was also true of textualism, which is the way that I approach statutes and their interpretation."
George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley told NPR that Barrett showed a "full-throated, unambiguous embrace of originalism. Indeed, I can't remember as strong a statement coming from any modern nominee."