Fact-checking the final presidential debate, from health care to immigration to coronavirus
Posted October 23, 2020 11:51 a.m. EDT
Updated October 23, 2020 5:24 p.m. EDT
Nashville, Tenn. — The final presidential debate between former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump may have had fewer interruptions, but it wasn’t any more truthful. It was similar to the first debate, in that Trump’s comments needed more fact-checking than Biden’s.
The claims came thick and fast about the coronavirus, immigration, health care and race issues. Let’s get right to the fact-checks.
- Trump: "We are rounding the turn (on coronavirus). We are rounding the corner." This is False."Rounding the corner" suggests that significant sustained improvements are being made in the fight against the virus, and that’s not the case, according to the data.
The number of coronavirus cases is climbing once again, after falling consistently between late July and mid-September. Cases are now at their highest point since early August, with almost 60,000 new confirmed infections a day. That’s only about 10% lower than the peak in late July.
Hospitalizations today are lower than in previous spikes, but in the past few weeks, there has been a modest increase. The positivity rate, which measures what percentage of tests come up positive for the virus, is also going up again during the past few weeks. Higher positivity rates are an indicator of community spread.
- Trump claimed his administration has done "everything" in Biden's plan to address COVID-19. Trump said, about Biden, "He was way behind us." We rated a similar claim Pants on Fire.
While there are some similarities between both Biden’s and Trump’s plans to combat COVID-19, experts told us any pandemic response plan should have certain core strategies. The Trump administration has released no comprehensive plan to combat COVID-19, except in regard to the development and distribution of vaccines. Trump’s main intervention was implementing travel restrictions, while efforts to roll out a widespread testing plan faced difficulties.
- Trump: "As you know, 2.2 million people were expected to die. We closed the greatest economy in the world to fight this horrible disease that came from China." This claim is Mostly False.
Trump frequently refers to this number to claim that his administration’s moves saved 2 million lives. However, the number is from a mathematical model that hypothesized what would happen if, during the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., people continued to live their daily lives as normal, and neither people or governments changed their behaviors, a scenario that experts consider unrealistic. The U.S. also has the highest death toll from COVID-19 of any country in the world, and one of the highest death rates.
Credit for shutting down the economy also doesn’t primarily go to Trump, but rather to states and local jurisdictions. In fact, Trump encouraged states to open back up beginning in May, even when there were high rates of COVID-19 transmission in those areas.
Trump: "We cannot lock ourselves in a basement like Joe does." We rated a similar claim False.
It is one of Trump’s favored shots to say Biden isolated himself in his basement. In the first few months of the pandemic, Biden did run much of his campaign from his Delaware home. He built a TV studio set in his basement to interact with voters virtually. But that changed. In September, Biden held events in Kenosha, Wis.; Lancaster, Pa.; Warren, Mich.; Tampa, Fla.,;Charlotte, N.C, and more. We counted 14 locations.
- Trump said that Dr. Anthony Fauci "is a Democrat, but that's OK." This is wrong. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is not affiliated with any political party. He also hasn’t endorsed any parties or candidates.
Biden: "We are in a circumstance where the president still has no plan, no comprehensive plan." This is largely accurate.
When Biden claimed during the first debate that Trump "still won’t offer a plan," we noted the Trump administration’s "Operation Warp Speed" for vaccine development as well as its more detailed plan for vaccine distribution. But the administration has not released a comprehensive plan to address COVID-19.
Biden said that schools "need a lot of money to open" and Trump "refused to support that money, or at least up until now." This needs context. Biden appears to be referring to a revised stimulus package the House passed Oct. 1. The measure would allocate a total of $225 billion to "support the educational needs of states, schools districts, and institutions in response to coronavirus," according to a summary from Democratic staff on the House Appropriations Committee.
Trump tweeted Oct. 6 that he instructed representatives to stop negotiating on that bill until after the election. He has since expressed interest in passing more relief, even floating the idea of a more expensive bill. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said he’s been "all over the map."
Trump: "There was a spike in Florida. That is gone. There was a spike in Texas. That is gone. There was a spike in Arizona. It is gone." This is inaccurate. Over the summer, Florida, Texas and Arizona experienced record surges in cases that later eased — but now they are all seeing new surges. Over the past week, the New York Times’ tracker notes, the daily average of new infections is up 29% in Florida, 16% in Texas, and 55% in Arizona, compared with the daily average two weeks earlier.
Trump: "When I closed (travel from China) he said I should not have closed. ... He said this is a terrible thing, you are a xenophobe, I think he called me racist. Now he says I should have closed it earlier." This claim is mostly false.
Joe Biden did not directly say that he thought that Trump shouldn’t have restricted travel from China to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Biden did accuse Trump of "xenophobia" in an Iowa campaign speech the same day that the administration announced the travel restrictions — Jan. 31 — but his campaign said his remarks were not related, and that he made similar comments before the restrictions were imposed. Biden didn’t take a definitive stance on the subject until April 3, when his campaign said that he supported Trump’s decision to impose travel restrictions on China.
- Trump: "They have 180 million people, families under what he wants to do, which will basically be socialized medicine, you won’t even have a choice, they want to terminate 180 million plans." Pants on fire.
There are about 180 million people with private health insurance. But there is absolutely no evidence that under Biden’s health care proposal all 180 million would be removed from their insurance plans. Biden supports creating a public option, which would be a government-run insurance program, that would exist alongside and compete with other private plans on the health insurance marketplace.
Under Biden’s plan, even people with employer-sponsored coverage could choose a public plan if they wanted. And estimates show that only a small percentage of Americans would likely leave their employer sponsored coverage if a public option were available, and certainly not all 180 million. Experts said it is not socialized medicine.
Biden: "Not one single person with private insurance" lost their insurance "under Obamacare … unless they chose they wanted to go to something else." This is inaccurate. It's a variation of a claim that earned President Barack Obama our Lie of the Year in 2013. The Affordable Care Act tried to allow existing health plans to continue under a complicated process called "grandfathering," but if the plans deviated even a little, they would lose their grandfathered status. And if that happened, insurers canceled plans that didn’t meet the new standards.
No one determined with any certainty how many people got cancellation notices, but analysts estimated that about 4 million or more had their plans canceled. Many found insurance elsewhere, and the percentage was small — out of a total insured population of about 262 million, the number of people with canceled plans was less than 2%. However, that still amounted to 4 million people who faced the difficulty of finding a new plan and the hassle of switching their coverage.
Trump: "Joe got $3.5 million from Russia that came through Putin because he was friendly with the mayor of Moscow, and it was his wife." This is both misstated and lacks hard evidence.
When Trump first made this claim, he said Biden’s son Hunter Biden received the money. Extending the charge to the former vice president lacks any proof whatsoever. But here’s what we know about the origin of this claim.
A report issued by the Republican majority on the Senate Finance and Homeland Security committees said Hunter Biden and his business partner Devon Archer had a financial relationship with Elena Baturina, the widow of a man who had been mayor of Moscow until 2010. As its source, the report cites undisclosed documents. Without seeing the documents the Republicans have relied on, this accusation remains unproven.
Biden says that President Donald Trump "has a secret bank account in China." This is accurate.
A major report from the New York Times showed a previously unknown account that remained open as of the publication of the story on Oct. 20. Trump’s attorney, Alan Garten, confirmed its existence.
According to the Times, Trump’s returns show that he has maintained bank accounts in three foreign countries — the United Kingdom, Ireland and China. They had not been listed in Trump’s candidate financial disclosure forms. The China account was in the name of a Trump-owned subsidiary, Trump International Hotels Management LLC. The leaked returns showed that $188,561 was paid from the account to cover taxes to the China government between 2013 to 2015. Garten told the Times that the company had opened an account with a Chinese bank in order to pay local taxes associated with efforts to explore possible hotel deals in Asia, but that no deals materialized.
Trump: "I closed" my Chinese bank account "before I even ran for president." This is misleading. Trump’s own lawyer was quoted in the New York Times article that revealed the existence of the bank account, and he said that "the bank account remains open."
Garten told the newspaper that the account had been opened to "pay the local taxes" associated with efforts to strike hotel deals in Asia, and that when "no deals, transactions or other business activities ever materialized," the account has remained "inactive" since 2015. The Times’ investigation confirmed tax payments made from the account from 2013 to 2018.
Biden says Trump’s "own national security adviser told him what is happening with his buddy Rudy Giuliani. He’s being used as a Russian pawn. He’s being fed information that’s not true." This is disputed.
The Washington Post reported that Trump’s former national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, warned Trump in 2019 that his personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, was the target of a Russian disinformation campaign in Ukraine and that any information he brought back from the country should be viewed with skepticism. In December 2019, Giuliani went to Ukraine in an attempt to gather evidence of corruption by Biden and his son Hunter.
The Post report quotes four former intelligence officials who said that Giuliani was seen interacting with people affiliated with Russian intelligence agencies on the trip. One of these former officials said that Trump "shrugged his shoulders" and seemed to discount O’Brien’s warning. However, in a written statement, National Security Council spokesman John Ullyot told the Post that its characterization of the meeting with O’Brien was "not accurate."
Biden, when speaking of his work in Ukraine while his son was on the board of a Ukrainian energy company, "Nothing was unethical. ... I carried out U.S. policy. Not one single solitary thing was out of line." This oversimplifies.
Hunter Biden’s position on the board of a Ukrainian energy company when Biden was vice president has long raised ethical questions for foreign policy experts.
"It was a mistake for Hunter Biden to join the Burisma board, particularly given that the vice president was the senior U.S. official engaging Ukraine. Hunter Biden should have been more mindful of his father's position," said Steven Pifer, a career foreign service officer who was ambassador to Ukraine under President Bill Clinton and a deputy assistant secretary of state under President George W. Bush.
In 2014, the Obama White House responded by saying members of the Biden family were "private citizens and where they work does not reflect an endorsement by the administration or by the Vice President or President."
When Biden launched his presidential campaign, his Republican critics pointed to a meeting he had in Ukraine in 2016 that led to the ouster of the country’s top prosecutor while the energy company was under investigation. But Biden was representing the administration's position in seeking the prosecutors removal, and he later boasted about the meeting, so it was no secret.
Biden told Ukraine’s president that a $1 billion loan guarantee was at stake unless the prosecutor left, a demand also supported by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.
Biden said Trump "has caused the deficit with China to go up, not down." Mostly False.
The U.S. trade deficit with China in goods and services, the broadest measurement of the balance of trade, was smaller under Trump in 2019, the most recent full year, than it was in any of the final three years of the Obama administration.
Biden’s campaign pointed to a narrower measure — trade in goods only — which shows that the trade deficit with China has generally been higher under Trump than it was under Obama. But even here, the U.S. made progress under Trump in 2019 in whittling down the goods deficit.
Trump: "(Biden) tried to hurt Social Security years ago." This distorts the record.
Biden has offered a variety of Social Security plans. Starting in the 1970s, he called for an increase in monthly benefits, then for a one-year freeze, then floated raising the retirement age, then backed a change in how benefits would increase. Today, he calls for higher monthly checks for the oldest beneficiaries.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Biden spoke in favor of Social Security freezes to rein in spending and reduce the deficit. Biden’s point was that no part of the government would be exempt from the effort to balance the budget.
As vice president during the Obama administration, Biden generally focused on protecting Social Security, and resisted moves to privatize it.
Biden: said if Trump ends the payroll tax, "Social Security will be bankrupt by 2023, with no way to make up for it." This needs context.
The Social Security chief actuary did say that if the Social Security portion of the payroll tax were eliminated, the program would run out of money in three years. However, the chief actuary added that he was unaware of any plan to end the payroll tax, and the Trump campaign has said there is no plan to do so.
The White House has said that Trump favors something more limited: to forgive the taxes that would have been due from a four-month payroll tax holiday he enacted by executive order to ease the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Trump has also mused about terminating the tax, which would put the program under great financial strain.
However, Trump also said he would look to Congress to maintain the program in that scenario by drawing on general revenues — potentially in excess of $1 trillion a year. The actuary said that if that approach were taken, it would leave benefits essentially unaffected. Even if Trump wanted to eliminate the payroll tax, he couldn’t accomplish it unilaterally; he’d need Congress to go along.
Race and criminal justice
Trump said Biden called Black Americans "superpredators" when he wrote his 1994 crime bill. There is no evidence for this.
In 1993, Biden gave a speech on the Senate floor in which he said the country should focus on young people who had no supervision or opportunities. Otherwise, they’d "become the predators 15 years from now," he said. Biden did not single out Black Americans.
"Madam President, we have predators on our streets, and society has in fact, because of its neglect, created that," he said, according to the Congressional Record.
The term "superpredators" refers to something Hillary Clinton said in 1996 when referring to a "gang of kids." She did not specifically say superpredators were Black Americans, but decades later Clinton apologized for the comment.
Biden said under the Obama administration "38,000 prisoners were released from federal prison." This is misleading. Biden’s campaign pointed to Bureau of Justice Statistics data showing the federal prison population was 179,898 in 2018, down about 38,000 from a peak of 217,815 in 2012. The 38,000 figure was cited in a letter by the ACLU sent to Senate leadership at the end of 2018.
But that statistic reflects only the net change in the federal prison population, not the number of people who were released. Moreover, it cherrypicks the high point during Obama’s tenure, and compares it with a year during Trump’s tenure.
A better measure is to compare the number of federal prisoners in 2008, the year before Obama became president, with his final year. Federal statistics show there were 201,280 federal prisoners in 2008 compared with 189,192 in 2016, a decline of about 12,088.
Trump: "Not since Abraham Lincoln has anybody done what I've done for the Black community." Historians dispute this.
Historians dispute this. The claim overstates Trump’s own standing within history, historians say. President Lyndon B. Johnson, a skilled legislator from his years in the Senate, deliberately crafted his civil rights agenda and pushed it through Congress with personal persuasion.
President Harry Truman moved to desegregate the military, and even President Richard Nixon, who was captured on tape making racist remarks, advanced the desegregation of schools and affirmative action in employment.
Trump: "President Obama would never give them long-term funding, and I did … I saved historically Black colleges and universities." This is an exaggeration.
When Trump signed the bipartisan FUTURE Act in 2019, he did make permanent $255 million in annual funding for minority-serving colleges, including roughly $85 million allocated to historically Black colleges and universities under a Title-III program. But Trump can’t claim he gave them more money than Obama did, or that he "saved" them.
HBCUs got money via the same program every year while Obama was president, according to the U.S. Education Department. Trump’s budget proposals for the last three years show that the White House repeatedly requested less in discretionary funding through the program than Congress provided.
Two experts crunched the numbers on HBCU funding for PolitiFact using data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Ivory Toldson, a Howard University professor who served as an HBCU liaison for the Obama administration, said HBCUs got $1.9 billion from the federal government in appropriations, grants and contracts in 2017-18, compared with between $1.8 billion and $2.4 billion annually under Obama.
Trump: "We changed the policy." The Obama administration "built the cages." This needs context.
Both the Obama and Trump administrations used chain-link enclosures to hold immigrants at border processing facilities. The term "cages" has been used by Trump critics to describe this type of enclosure.
The claim about cages came during a question about family separations at the southwest border. The separations occurred under the Trump administration’s "zero-tolerance" policy to prosecute all adults crossing the border illegally, while their children were sent to the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, which placed them with sponsors (such as family members), in shelters, or foster homes.
Biden: "These 500-plus kids came with parents. They separated them at the border to make it a disincentive to come to begin with." This checks out.
There are 545 children separated from their parents for whom lawyers and immigrant advocacy groups have "not yet reached the separated parent," said a court document filed this week related to litigation about family separations at the southwest border.
The children are among 1,500 who were separated from their parents and whose cases were discovered later through litigation. Some of the separations happened under a pilot program that began in mid-2017.
The Trump administration in April 2018 announced and expanded its "zero-tolerance" policy, the driver of the family separations. After public backlash, a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to stop separating families and to reunite the children it had in custody with their families. The Trump administration identified about 2,700 such children.
Trump: "We are trying very hard" to reunite 545 children taken at the border whose parents have not been located." This needs context.
This needs context. The government isn't working alone. A court-appointed steering committee of lawyers and immigrant advocates is working to unify families. The Trump campaign pointed to an Oct. 21 statement by the Department of Homeland Security that "DHS has taken every step to facilitate the reunification of these families where the parents wanted such reunification to occur."
The committee also established toll-free telephone numbers in the United States, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and El Salvador to field calls from parents, and publicized them through non-governmental organizations and other community organizations in the United States and Spanish-language media outlets. The committee sent letters in Spanish and English to about 1,600 addresses provided by the government for those who had not yet been reached.
- Biden: "I have never said that I oppose fracking." This one is MESSY.
Biden has misstated his own position at least once in the past, but his opponents have taken that misstatement and wrongly presented it as his position.
Biden’s position is that the United States needs to transition away from fossil fuels, but he doesn’t want to ban fracking outright. Instead, he opposes fracking on public lands and wants to stop the federal government from issuing new permits for drilling. He says that he’ll allow fracking to continue on private lands, where most of it takes place.
Biden did misspeak during a debate with Bernie Sanders in March 2020 when he said he supported a ban on "new fracking." He walked back those remarks the same day and has repeatedly said since then that he doesn’t support a ban on fracking right now.
Trump: "Look, their real (climate) plan costs $100 trillion." We rated a similar claim as False.
Right before Trump talked about Biden’s "real plan," he named Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, D-N.Y., a prime architect of the Green New Deal proposal. Trump invariably says that is Biden’s true climate change policy.
It isn’t, although Biden’s website describes the Green New Deal as a "crucial framework." Biden’s plan aims for net-zero carbon emissions no later than 2050.
The $100 trillion figure applies to the Green New Deal. It’s based on a report by the American Action Forum, a center-right think tank. That report puts the cost at somewhere between $51 trillion and $93 trillion. The largest expenses are for non-environmental parts of the proposal: $36 trillion for universal health care and up to to $44.6 trillion for guaranteed union jobs with a family-sustaining wage. Whatever the similarities between Biden’s climate plan and the Green New Deal, Biden's plan doesn’t include the non-environmental elements. Without those pieces, there’s no way to get to the high-end estimates.
Biden: "He thinks wind causes cancer, windmills." Trump has said this.
When Trump suggested the noise of wind turbines causes cancer in April 2019, we rated that Pants on Fire.
"If you have a windmill anywhere near your house, congratulations, your house just went down 75% in value," Trump said at a National Republican Congressional Committee fundraiser. "And they say the noise causes cancer."
There are no studies that support Trump’s statement that windmills and cancer are somehow linked. Donald Trump's ridiculous link between cancer, wind turbineswe found a report from the Australian Parliament’s Select Committee on Wind Turbines. The report found anecdotal reports of discomfort from people who lived near windmills, and the list of ailments it heard was long. But no one complained of cancer. In its final 2015 report, the committee said more evidence was needed to establish a link to any illness.
Trump: "The fumes coming up to make these massive windmills is more than anything that we are talking about with natural gas." This gets things backwards. Wind comes with much lower greenhouse gas emissions than natural gas.
Energy analysts can tease out the greenhouse gas emissions for the entire life cycle of any source of power. According to the U.S. Energy Department, natural gas produces 22 times more than wind power. Researchers at Edinburgh University in Scotland reached the same conclusion after reviewing a number of studies of emissions from windmills: "Despite variations in estimated carbon footprint of wind power generation, it is significant to note they are all significantly lower than for fossil fuelled generation," they wrote.
A life cycle analysis looks at every step in the production of power, from making the equipment, to the daily production of electricity, to the final use of the equipment at the end of its useful life. Even though the steps are totally different for natural gas and wind power — the great majority of a windmill’s emissions come in making the equipment and erecting the towers — the final comparison can be apples-to-apples.
Trump: In 2016, "we beat Hillary Clinton with a tiny fraction of the money." This is slightly exaggerated.
Trump did trail Clinton in the money race, and his ability to win despite that shortfall was notable. However, Trump had access to more than a "tiny fraction" of Clinton’s war chest.
Trump’s campaign directly raised $333.1 million in 2016, which was just shy of 60% of the total that Clinton raised, $563.8 million.
If you combine the amounts that each campaign raised with the amounts raised by independent groups aligned with that candidate as well as their national party committees, Trump and his allies were able to count on about $1.4 billion, which was about 68% of the $2.06 billion Clinton raised.
Trump: "They spied on my campaign." This is False.
No evidence has surfaced to suggest Obama or Biden ever spied on Trump’s campaign, ordered a wiretap on Trump Tower, or initiated or meddled in the FBI’s work looking into possible coordination between members of Trump’s campaign and Russia.
The wiretapping claim has been dismissed as unsubstantiated by lawmakers from both parties, intelligence officials and the Justice Department.
As part of the Russia probe later led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the FBI investigated four men in the Trump campaign’s orbit. A report from Justice Department inspector general Michael Horowitz concluded that the investigation was justified and not politically motivated.
Trump: Biden "doesn’t come from Scranton … He lived there for a short period of time before he even knew it, and he left." Pants on Fire.
Biden spent his early youth in Scranton, living there for a decade and attending Catholic school. He was 10 years old when his family moved to Wilmington, Del., but he continued to spend most summers and holidays with his mother’s family there.
Biden has maintained ties to Pennsylvania in the years since, returning for everything from commencement speeches and little league games to fundraisers and floods. Although he represented Delaware, he was sometimes called Pennsylvania’s "third senator" due to his attention to legislation affecting the state.