“I think you missed one very important point. He has had Al Sharpton to the White House 80, 85 times. … You make Al Sharpton a close adviser, you are going to turn the police in America against you.”
–Former New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, CBS News’ “Face the Nation,” Dec. 28, 2014
In his interview on “Face the Nation,” Giuliani addressed The Fact Checker’s Four Pinocchio rating about his comment that President Obama launched a propaganda campaign that “everybody should hate the police.” That rhetoric, Giuliani had said, led to the assassination-style killings of two New York Police Department officers in December.
Giuliani had not responded to our requests for comment for the fact check, but was later asked about it by Major Garrett during the interview. He said the fact check “missed the one big point: Al Sharpton.” He offered a new explanation with a figure attached: Obama’s anti-police rhetoric is through his association with the Rev. Al Sharpton, who has been invited to the White House 80 to 85 times.
“You know, actions speak louder than words. You put Al Sharpton next to you, you just told everyone, ‘I’m against the police,’” Giuliani said in the segment.
Giuliani’s figure — that Obama has had Sharpton to the White House “80, 85 times” — seemed high. That claim also has been made in right-leaning news outlets, including one that labeled Sharpton Obama’s “race czar.” (“While the Ebola czar is hardly seen, Obama’s race czar is everywhere. He reportedly has visited the White House more than 80 times — more than most of the president’s cabinet.”)
Is it correct Obama invited Sharpton to the White House upwards of 85 times? And does that make Sharpton a “close advisor” of the president?
The Giuliani-Sharpton relationship
Giuliani responded to our request for interview this time. He explained that it sends an “anti-police” message when Sharpton, an outspoken activist who has protested homicides of minorities by police since the 1990s, is in public with leaders such as Obama or New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. There are a handful of reasons hundreds of NYPD officers are literally turning their back against de Blasio, he said, and one of the reasons is that de Blasio met with Sharpton after Eric Garner died after he was put in a chokehold by an NYPD officer in Staten Island.
For readers who are not familiar, there is history between Sharpton and Giuliani that dates to Giuliani’s first term as mayor of New York City, which started 21 years ago.
Sharpton organized marches and demonstrations; two of the most high-profile marches were over the death of Amadou Diallo and the assault of Abner Louima, both by NYPD officers. Sharpton criticized Giuliani and led daily protests, linking the two cases to problems of widespread police brutality and racism. There was some violence and unrest surrounding both events, but not directly linked to Sharpton’s marches. Giuliani described Sharpton’s role during that time in the CBS interview: “I saw this man help cause riots in New York. I have heard his anti-police invective firsthand.”
Giuliani brought up Sharpton’s state and federal liens totaling more than $4.5 million. People don’t get invited to the White House as often as Sharpton, and certainly not when they have owed millions in taxes, Giuliani told The Fact Checker: “We’re talking about a man with a record that is astoundingly outrageous, a man who was a tax cheat, a liar … who has made allegations against police officers constantly.”
“Do I think there are legitimate civil rights activists? Absolutely. Do I think Al Sharpton is a legitimate civil rights activist? Are you out of your mind? Are you living on Mars? If you can’t figure out Al Sharpton is a con man, you’re not a reporter,” Giuliani said. “Al Sharpton stands for something. He is involved in every racial or quasi-racial issues that has involved any police officer … always on the side of whoever is against the police. Some of them have been legitimate, many of them have been illegitimate.”
When asked for an example of a legitimate protest, Giuliani mentioned the Louima case, in which the Haitian immigrant was sodomized by NYPD officers. Louima claimed – then recanted – that the officers invoked Giuliani’s name (“It’s Giuliani time!”) during the assault. Giuliani noted he immediately appointed a task force to investigate the incident.
In an interview with The Fact Checker, Sharpton blamed Giuliani for slinging insults over a grudge that started two decades ago: “Because I disagreed with him when he was mayor and I marched on him, he’s trying to mischaracterize me in a way that is unfair and untrue. Name a statement — isn’t it interesting that he could not cite a statement that I made that was anti-police or pro-violence or I hate cops? … Giuliani wants to have a reason to demonize the president, and wants to justify why, under his watch, you had the sodomy and rape of Abner Louima, which he did not handle well.”
As for the taxes, Sharpton said Giuliani is using outdated figures, and that he is on a payment plan to clear his back taxes by February 2015.
We will not weigh in on this dispute. This fact check will focus on the figure Giuliani presented about Sharpton’s visits to the White House. His statements about Sharpton and Sharpton’s association with Obama and the message it sends are opinions and can’t be easily fact-checked.
Sharpton’s White House visits
Sharpton has been visible in the rallies, press conferences and marches following Garner’s death and the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., by a police officer. The civil rights activist — and now a TV show host on MSNBC — delivered eulogies at both of their funerals and has appeared in front of cameras with their families.
Since Obama’s first term, Sharpton has become an unexpected ally of the White House on race relations. Obama has been criticized by supporters who believe he has not taken a hard enough stance on race relations. Sharpton, by contrast, has built his career doing the opposite as an outspoken civil-rights activist. Yet Obama and Sharpton have shared a stage publicly, and Sharpton has met with members of Obama’s administration privately over the years. Politico described Sharpton as Obama’s “go-to man on race.”
Giuliani said he took the high end of figures reported in Fox News, which ranged from 60 to 85 visits. The outlets reporting Sharpton’s visits used the White House visitors’ logs, so we looked at those figures. At first glance, there are 82 visits logged for Al Sharpton, Alfred Sharpton or Alfred C. Sharpton – all variations of Sharpton’s name.
This database is not a comprehensive list of all White House visits, and there are potentially thousands of visitors missing from it. The records date to September 2009, but there are sporadic entries available publicly from earlier in 2009. Visits by personal guests, not involving any official or political business, are exempt from the database.
Another limitation of the visitor log is that the field for “visitee” does not always reflect the principal person holding the meetings. These limitations are clear when taking a closer look at Sharpton’s visits.
Of the 82 visits logged for Sharpton, there were 10 entries that either appear to be duplicates, or are canceled appointments. We identified duplicates using the appointment start time; presumably, there was one Al Sharpton in a meeting starting at the exact same hour and time, in the same location, for the same purpose. The database even logged meetings that are canceled. That means there were at least 72 instances since Obama took office where Sharpton visited the White House for official business.
Sharpton’s first recorded visit was on May 6, 2009, for a meeting on education at the Oval Office with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former House speaker Newt Gingrich. The vast majority of the meetings did not list a specific purpose, including ones scheduled with White House staff members. There were a handful of meetings scheduled with Valerie Jarrett, a White House senior adviser who is a main point of contact between Sharpton and the White House.
Of those 72 visits, five were one-on-one meetings. One of those meetings was marked as scheduled with the president. There were about 50 meetings that list “POTUS” as the visitee, but some of those “meetings” were largely events ranging from 102 guests to 3,262. The events included a tax bill signing event, Supreme Court reception, Superbowl party, Music of the Civil Rights concert, holiday reception and the official arrival ceremony for Mexican President Felipe Calderon.
To recap, of Sharpton’s 72 meetings:
- One-on-one meetings: 5 (7 percent)
- Meetings with staff members or senior advisers, with more than one guest: 20 (27 percent)
- Events with more than 90 people: 16 (22 percent)
- Miscellaneous meetings or events, ranging from 3 to 700 guests: 31 (43 percent)
Sharpton as ‘close adviser’
Giuliani connected Sharpton’s dozens of visits to the White House to what he described as Sharpton’s role as a “close adviser.” So we looked at the visitor log records of David Axelrod, an actual former White House senior adviser. Since Axelrod left the White House in January 2011, he had 28 official visits – and half of them were one-on-one meetings.
Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO who advises on labor policies, visited the White House 104 times since mid-2009, and 19 of the visits were one-on-one meetings. One-fifth of Trumka’s visits were meetings or events with 100 or more people. Matthew T. McGuire, former Citadel vice president and business liaison for the Commerce Department, visited the White House at least 250 times since 2011. Fifty of those visits were one-on-one meetings, and only 6 percent of his visits were meetings or events with 100+ people. Sharpton’s visits, in comparison, had far more ceremonial events and large-group gatherings.
It’s impossible to compare Sharpton’s attendance to the Obama White House with his visits to previous presidents’ because the White House opened up its visitors logs only in 2009.
Sharpton told The Fact Checker that he does not have a formal title with the White House as the Rev. Jesse Jackson did under the Clinton administration.
“I’m invited to the White House as a leader of one of the largest civil rights organizations in the country,” Sharpton said. “I’ve had meetings with him (Obama) on civil rights issues, like King Day, and stuff like that. But certainly not 80.”
Sharpton said he is an adviser to Brown’s family, and was invited by them to Ferguson. He has organized marches following the deaths of Brown and Garner, but he also stood with Garner’s family to denounce the killings of the NYPD officers, he said. We asked Sharpton if he had any meetings with the president after the deaths of Brown or Garner, or the assassination-style killings of two New York Police Department officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos. The only conversation he had with the president about Ferguson was at a public round table with other civil rights leaders, Sharpton said.
Giuliani agreed that Sharpton’s visits included events. How does his attendance at various events or large-group meetings at the White House portray him as a close adviser? Giuliani reiterated it’s about the message he believes Sharpton’s presence sends: “If you would like to carry a sign around that ‘I am anti-police,’ you would put Al Sharpton in your house.”
The Pinocchio Test
Giuliani picked the high end of the range from 60 to 85 visits that Sharpton made to the White House. It is correct that the figure Giuliani cites fits within the reported range. When accounted for duplicates and cancellations, Sharpton made 72 recorded official visits since 2009. And since the White House visitor logs are not an accurate picture of all meetings held there, the number may be even higher than 72. But, as we have shown, the actual recorded meetings with White House staff, as opposed to ceremonial occasions, accounts for less than 50 percent of the total.
Moreover, to cite this number to show that Sharpton is a “close adviser” is an exaggeration — which earns Giuliani One Pinocchio.
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