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Fact Check: Second night of RNC riddled with dishonesty as Melania Trump appeals for 'total honesty'

Posted August 25, 2020 8:25 p.m. EDT
Updated August 26, 2020 1:13 a.m. EDT

— First Lady Melania Trump concluded the second night of the Republican National Convention with a speech in which she said, "Total honesty is what we as citizens deserve from our president."

We certainly haven't received total honesty from President Donald Trump. And we certainly didn't get it on Tuesday night. The convention programming was littered with false or misleading claims, including some from the President's son Eric Trump, as well as a number of other claims that were missing important context.

Here's a look at some of the notable claims from Tuesday night and the facts behind them.

False allegations about Biden and Ukraine

Former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi on Tuesday attacked Democratic nominee Joe Biden over his son Hunter Biden's position on the board of Ukrainian energy firm Burisma. "That very same company was being investigated by a Ukrainian prosecutor. Joe Biden, the Vice President of the United States, threatened to withhold aid to Ukraine unless that same prosecutor was fired. And then, he was fired," Bondi claimed.

Facts First: This is false. The Ukrainian prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, was not actively investigating Burisma. In fact, Biden sought the prosecutor's removal because Shokin was widely seen as ineffective and corrupt.

In pushing for Shokin's removal, Biden was carrying out US policy that was supported by Ukrainian activists, US diplomats and European allies -- as well as Republican senators like Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who is now investigating Burisma and the Bidens.

Hunter Biden in October 2019 said he used "poor judgment" in serving on the board of a Ukrainian gas company because it has become a political liability for his father. But there is no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of either Biden, and no evidence Joe Biden has profited from his son's business dealings abroad.

Bondi made similar allegations during President Donald Trump's impeachment trial, where she served as defense counsel. Trump and his allies have repeatedly made unfounded and false claims to allege that the former vice president and his son acted corruptly in Ukraine.

CNN's Daniel Dale has a more detailed fact check on the matter from January here.

-- Jeremy Herb

Trump's economy

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow praised the economic recovery from the pandemic-driven recession, saying the rebound came on the back of emergency spending and tax cuts.

"There's a housing boom, there's an auto boom, a manufacturing boom, a consumer spending boom, stocks are in record territory, a V-shaped recovery is pointing to better than 20% growth in the second half of this year," Kudlow said.

Facts First: This is mostly correct, but it needs more context. The US economy is indeed recovering after the shock of the spring lockdown to stop the spread of Covid-19. Unprecedented stimulus from the government and the Federal Reserve have helped make this happen, but millions of American workers remain out of work.

Economic data for the housing market, manufacturing and consumer spending have for the most part been better than expected.

But consumers are growing more concerned about the near future. As of last month, America was still down nearly 13 million jobs from February, and with the supplemental $600 weekly jobless benefits expiring in July, disposable income for unemployed workers has shrunk. That's a risk for the recovery because some two-thirds of the US economy is reliant on consumer spending.

Economists and market experts are divided about the shape of the recovery and whether it really will be V-shaped: a sharp decline followed by a rapid rebound.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta forecasts that US GDP -- the broadest measure of the economy -- will grow at a seasonally adjusted annualized rate of 25.6% in the third quarter of the year.

-- Anneken Tappe

Obama vs. Trump economies

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow claimed that President Donald Trump inherited a "stagnant economy on the front end of recession" from the Obama administration, adding that the Trump White House rebuilt the economy in three years.

Facts First: This is misleading. The US economy was growing 1.7% in 2016 when Trump was elected. It continued to grow after he took office, especially after the 2017 tax cuts.

America emerged from the Great Recession in the third quarter of 2009 and grew continuously with only a few hiccups -- small GDP declines in 2011 and 2014 -- from there on out throughout the rest of President Barack Obama's presidency. The length of the expansion provoked fears of a slowdown, but the Republican-led tax cuts in 2017 produced additional growth in 2018.

In 2019, the US economy broke the record as the longest expansion in history, but economists grew concerned that the expansion might have run its course. Slowing global economic growth and a contracting manufacturing sector in the United States were among the biggest concerns, even before the coronavirus pandemic tipped the US into recession.

Read more from CNN's Tara Subramaniam and Katie Lobosco here.

-- Anneken Tappe

Claims on economic gains

Eric Trump made a lot of claims about the US economy, suggesting that his father's presidency had given it an immediate boost.

"Wages went through the roof. Unemployment reached historic lows, especially for Black Americans, Hispanic Americans and women. Trade deals were ripped up and renegotiated. Lights were turned back on in abandoned factories across our country. Trillions of dollars are repatriated back to the United States, which had been sitting in foreign lands for far too long," he said.

Facts First: While some of these claims are true, others were misleading or false.

Wages did not significantly jump after President Trump's election, when compared with the last two years of the Obama administration, using one common measure. Median weekly earnings were $347 in 2016, the year before Trump became President. They rose to $351 in 2017 and were up to $359 a week in 2019 -- before the pandemic.

Eric Trump is right about US unemployment, which fell to a seasonally adjusted rate of 3.5% last September -- its lowest level since 1969. The unemployment rates for Blacks, Hispanics and women also hit record lows last year. But he ignores the economic destruction caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which has driven the unemployment rate above 10%.

It's possible that some abandoned factories have restarted since Trump took office. The number of US factories fell by more than 60,000 during the previous two administrations. America gained 12,000 between the first quarter of 2017 and the second quarter of 2019, the most recent data available, though it's worth noting that the numbers include both large traditional factories and tiny facilities that produce goods with fewer than five employees.

Eric Trump is likely overstating the amount of money corporations brought back to the United States. It's closer to $1 trillion, according to a Bloomberg analysis of government data. The tax law President Trump signed into law in 2017 created an incentive for companies to repatriate their cash.

- Katie Lobosco

Claims on North Korean diplomacy

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Trump "lowered the temperature and, against all odds, got North Korean leadership to the table."

"No nuclear tests, no long-range missile tests and Americans held captive in North Korea came home to their families as did the precious remains of scores of heroes who fought in Korea," he said.

Facts First: This lacks context. While Trump did meet twice with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, he has little progress to show for those summits. North Korea launched a number of projectiles earlier this year and although there hasn't been a known nuclear test inside North Korea since September 2017, a UN report found that Pyongyang is continuing work on its nuclear program.

Trump's second summit with Kim in February 2019 ended without a joint agreement after Kim insisted sanctions be lifted. Working level talks have broken down, and in November 2019 the North Korean Foreign Ministry said it was not "interested" in further meetings with the US.

Americans did come back to their families. One of those Americans -- Otto Warmbier -- came back with significant brain injuries and died shortly after.

North Korea turned over 55 boxes of remains presumed to be of US service members killed during the 1950-1953 Korean War in July 2018. The effort to retrieve the remains, which has long been touted by Trump as evidence of the success of his first Singapore summit with Kim, was suspended in May 2019.

- Jennifer Hansler

Peace in the Middle East

Eric Trump suggested that his father had achieved peace in the Middle East and brought never-ending wars to an end.

"Moving the embassy to Jerusalem; peace in the Middle East. Never-ending wars were finally ended. Promises made and promises for the first time were kept," he said.

Facts First: This is misleading and lacks context. President Trump did move Israel's US Embassy to Jerusalem. As for peace and ending "never-ending wars," it's unclear exactly which conflicts Eric Trump was referencing, but that's at best debatable and in some cases wrong.

In Afghanistan, US troops have been drawn down despite delays in the intra-Afghan peace talks and the Taliban's failure to distance themselves from al Qaeda.

US intelligence assessed there was an effort by a Russian military intelligence unit to pay the Taliban to kill US soldiers -- an effort that was downplayed by Trump. The US still has more than 5,000 troops in Iraq, although CENTCOM Commander Gen. Kenneth McKenzie said two weeks ago that number would likely decrease in coming months.

Critics have also suggested that the Trump administration's "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran has led to instability in the region.

Trump announced a deal to normalize relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, hailing it as "a significant step towards building a more peaceful, secure, and prosperous Middle East." However, Palestinian officials have slammed the deal. The administration's Middle East peace proposal, unveiled in January, was also rejected. Following the move of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi said the US had "disqualified itself as a peacemaker or an intermediary."

As recently as last week, US troops in Syria and their allies exchanged fire with pro-Syrian regime forces in the eastern part of the country. The administration has applied new tranches of sanctions against the Assad regime in response to atrocities carried out against the Syrian people, but efforts to change the regime's behavior have been largely unsuccessful.

-Jennifer Hansler

Holding "China accountable" on Covid

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed that President Donald Trump "has held China accountable for covering up the China virus" -- the administration's loaded term for coronavirus -- and for "allowing it to spread death and economic destruction in America and around the world."

Facts First: This is partly false. While some members of the administration, including Pompeo, criticized China over the virus early on, Trump repeatedly praised China and its leader Xi Jinping at the outset for how it handled the outbreak, while also repeatedly downplaying the potential seriousness of the disease in the US. CNN identified 37 times between January and early April where Trump praised China on Twitter and in comments.

Even as he got tougher on Beijing and Xi, Trump's initial retaliatory actions took aim not at the Chinese government, but at the World Health Organization. Trump announced in April he was halting funding to the multilateral body, criticizing it for failing to "get medical experts into China to objectively assess the situation on the ground and to call out China's lack of transparency." In May, he said that the US was terminating its relationship with WHO, and the administration began the formal process of withdrawing in July.

The Trump administration has taken a number of actions against Beijing in recent months, but those moves were not exclusively tied to the coronavirus. Officials like Pompeo had indicated in the past that there could be more retaliatory actions, and CNN reported in April that the administration was formulating a long-term plan to punish China on multiple fronts for the coronavirus pandemic.

As for China's responsibility, US intelligence has gathered information showing that officials in Wuhan, China, kept senior officials in Beijing in the dark for weeks about the virus that resulted in the Covid-19 pandemic, according to US officials familiar with the intelligence.

-Jennifer Hansler

Trump's position on the Iraq War

Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul said he's supporting Trump because he seeks to end wars and not start them, citing Trump's position on the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq.

Paul said, "Joe Biden voted for the Iraq War, which President Trump has long called the worst geopolitical mistake of our generation."

Facts First: Paul's comments about Trump's stance on the war are misleading. It's true that Biden voted for the war in 2002, though he did acknowledge a few years later that his vote was a mistake.

Though Trump himself has repeatedly claimed to have opposed the war before it began, he only became an explicit opponent of the war more than a year after it began. He even expressed tentative support for the invasion in late 2002 and in his 2000 book, "The America We Deserve," Trump argued that a military strike on Iraq might be necessary.

You can read more about Trump's past comments about the war in Iraq here.

- Tara Subramaniam

Defunding the police

In his remarks Tuesday night, Eric Trump contrasted his father's accomplishments with Biden's plans. According to Eric Trump, "Biden has pledged to defund the police."

Facts First: Biden has expressly not supported calls to "defund the police."

Biden's published criminal justice plan called for a $300 million investment in community policing efforts -- including the hiring of more officers.

On June 8, Biden told CBS, "No, I don't support defunding the police." Rather, he said, "I support conditioning federal aid to police based on whether or not they meet certain basic standards of decency and honorableness. And, in fact, are able to demonstrate they can protect the community and everybody in the community."

It's worth noting that the slogan "defund the police" means different things to different activists -- from the dissolution of police forces to partial reductions in funding.

Trump's campaign has seized on a single comment Biden made to a progressive activist in a July video chat. In that conversation, Biden repeated his opposition to defunding police. When pressed, he did say he "absolutely" agrees that some funding can be redirected to social services, mental health counseling and affordable housing, but he immediately transitioned to his previous proposal to deny federal funding to specific police departments that do not meet certain standards.

Biden said in early June that decisions about funding levels should be made by local communities, since some have too many officers, but some don't have enough.

-- Tara Subramaniam

Gun control

In his address, Eric Trump claimed that Biden has pledged to remove the Second Amendment.

"Biden has pledged to ... take away your cherished Second Amendment," the President's son said.

Facts First: Biden has not pledged to remove the Second Amendment. He does support certain gun control measures.

Biden's plan, as laid out on the campaign's website, proposes to "end our gun violence epidemic and respect the Second Amendment, which is limited."

Along with banning the "manufacture and sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines," the plan includes mandating that people who own assault weapons either sell them to the federal government or properly register them with the authorities, along with other measures.

-- Holmes Lybrand

Religious freedom and the UN

Cissie Graham Lynch -- a member of the Trump campaign's evangelical advisory board and the granddaughter of famed evangelist Billy Graham -- said, "President Trump became the first president to talk about the importance of religious freedom at the United Nations."

Facts First: This is not true. Previous presidents, including Barack Obama, George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, have all spoken about the importance of religious freedom in speeches to the UN General Assembly. Trump himself has previously made a narrower claim than Graham Lynch did -- saying that he is the first president to host a UN meeting specifically devoted to the topic of religious freedom. (We haven't yet looked into that Trump claim.)

In Obama's 2015 address to the UN General Assembly, he argued that freedom of "peaceful worship" is a self-evident universal truth that is not dependent on an individual country's culture. In 2016, he called for equal treatment for "a religious minority in Myanmar." In his 2014 address, Obama denounced the terrorist group ISIS for starving "religious minorities."

George W. Bush made appeals for religious freedom in various speeches to the UN General Assembly. He said in 2005 that he has an "agenda for a freer world, where people can live and worship and raise their children as they choose." In a 2007 address, Bush too denounced the government of Myanmar (also known as Burma) for restricting freedom of worship, and later said of the world in general, "With the commitment and courage of this chamber, we can build a world where people are free to speak, assemble, and worship as they wish." In his 2008 address, he also called on nations to allow people to "worship as they choose."

In George H.W. Bush's 1991 address, he spoke of the need to defend "inalienable human rights" such as religious freedom, saying that "government has failed" if citizens "can't practice their religion freely."

In Reagan's 1986 address, he castigated the Soviet Union for persecuting religious leaders.

-- Daniel Dale

Government-subsidized abortions

Anti-abortion activist Abby Johnson asserted that during his first year in office, Trump "overturned an Obama-Biden rule that allowed government subsidy of abortion."

Facts First: This is misleading. Trump signed legislation in 2017 blocking federal funding for abortion providers, but federal funds have been barred from being used for elective abortions since 1976.

Johnson appears to be referring to Trump signing a bill in 2017 allowing states to withhold federal money from organizations that provide abortion services, including Planned Parenthood -- reversing an Obama-era regulation that prohibited states from withholding money from facilities that perform abortions.

But because of the Hyde Amendment, which dates back to 1976, federal funds were and are already barred from being used for abortions except in cases of rape, incest or to save the woman's life.

Planned Parenthood provides other health services, which is what the federal money is meant to pay for. The 2017 bill permits states to suspend even that funding, if the organization providing those services also performs abortions.

--Caroline Kelly

This story has been updated.

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