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Fact checking the third Democratic debate

ABC aired the third Democratic presidential debate Saturday featuring three candidates: former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.

Not every statement could be easily fact checked, but following is a list of 10 suspicious or interesting claims.  As is our practice, we do not award Pinocchios when we do a roundup of facts in debates.

“He [Donald Trump] is becoming ISIS’s best recruiter. They are going to people showing videos of Donald Trump insulting Islam and Muslims in order to recruit more radical jihadists.”
—Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
“ISIL training videos are telling lone wolves the easiest way to buy a combat assault weapon in America is at a gun show.”
—Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley

Both Clinton and O’Malley referenced videos for the Islamic State terror group that, thus far, do not appear to exist. (Clinton used the acronym for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and O’Malley used one for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. But it’s the same organization.)

As evidence, the Clinton campaign pointed to an NBC News report quoting Rita Katz, executive director of the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors social media activities of Islamic terrorist groups, that Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric was a great recruiting tool for ISIS.

“They love him from the sense that he is supporting their rhetoric,” Katz told NBC. “They love him from the sense that he is supporting their rhetoric.” She added: “They follow everything Donald Trump says. When he says, ‘No Muslims should be allowed in America,’ they tell people, ‘We told you America hates Muslims and here is proof.’”

But Katz did not specifically refer to a video, only to social media. We couldn’t immediately find evidence such a video yet existed. Update: “ISIS didn’t feature Trump in a video, but ISIS supporters and recruiters have used Trump’s rhetoric to promote ISIS’ ideas and agenda,” Katz told The Fact Checker.

Meanwhile, O’Malley’s campaign pointed to a news report about a video circulated by an al-Qaeda spokesman, Adam Yahiye Gadahn, who was not affiliated with the Islamic State. (The American-born Gadahn was killed in 2015 by a CIA drone strike in Pakistan.) Al Qaeda is not the same terror group as the Islamic State, though former elements of al Qaeda have affiliated with IS.

In 2011, Gadahn urged followers: “America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms. You can go down to a gun show at the local convention center and come away with a fully automatic assault rifle, without a background check, and most likely without having to show an identification card. So what are you waiting for?”

“From my perspective, we have to prevent the Republicans from rolling back the progress that we’ve made. … They would, despite all their tough talk about terrorism, continue to let people who are on the no-fly list buy guns.”

This is a common Democratic talking point, to call on stricter gun laws that prohibit people on the Transportation Security Administration’s “no-fly” list from buying firearms. But this is a misleading and incomplete characterization of the legislation that Democrats introduced in Congress.

The TSA uses this list to screen passengers, as people on the list are deemed a threat to commercial aviation or national security. Currently, membership in a terrorist organization or being listed in one of the watch lists does not stop someone from buying a gun. There has to be another factor that disqualifies the person from buying a gun under federal or state law, such as a felony conviction or illegal immigration status.

The actual legislation that was introduced — and rejected — in the Senate this year doesn’t automatically ban people on the list from buying a gun. Instead, it gives discretion to the attorney general to deny the sale or transfer of firearms and explosives to known or suspected terrorists. The bill does not target the no-fly list, but rather allows the attorney general to run the person’s name against the broader FBI Terrorist Watchlist. The no-fly list is a subsection of the larger list.

Interestingly, the Department of Justice proposed similar legislative language in 2007 in the George W. Bush administration, to give the attorney general  “discretionary authority to deny the transfer of firearms or explosives to known or suspected ‘dangerous terrorists.”

At the third Democratic debate, Bernie Sanders apologized to Hillary Clinton, grew heated about guns and urged America to focus on defeating the Islamic State (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)
“In 1988, just to set the record straight, governor [Martin O’Malley], I ran for the U.S. House. We have one House member from Vermont. Three candidates in the race. One candidate said, you know what, I don’t think it’s a great idea that we sell automatic weapons in this country that are used by the military to kill people very rapidly. Gun people said, ‘There are three candidates in this race, we’ll vote for one of the others but not for Bernie Sanders.’ I lost that election by three percentage points, quite likely for that reason.” 
–Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vermont)

This is only half of the story. What Sanders doesn’t say is that the National Rifle Association actually backed Sanders in 1990 over the incumbent he lost to in the 1988 election.

That’s because then-Rep. Peter Smith voted for an assault weapons ban, against his promise not to do so. The NRA wanted him out of office and backed Sanders instead. Just before Election Day in 1990, the NRA sent a letter to its 12,000 members in Vermont supporting Sanders, reported The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold. It was an odd pairing, as Sanders supported measures to ban assault weapons.

But then-NRA executive director Wayne LaPierre wrote in his letter: “Bernie Sanders is a more honorable choice for Vermont sportsmen than ­Peter Smith. … It is not about Peter Smith vs. Bernie Sanders. It is about integrity in politics.”

Statewide hunters’ groups joined NRA in the effort, urging voters to reject Smith, according to news coverage from 1990.

The NRA did not issue a grade for Sanders in 1990. Between 1992 and 2012, Sanders received between a C-minus and F from the NRA.

“I think it’s important to point out that about three percent of my donations come from people in the finance and investment world. You can go to and check that. I have more donations from students and teachers than I do from people associated with Wall Street.”

Clinton challenged us to check on the Center for Responsive Politics’s campaign finance website, so we did. Her three percent figure checks out for federal-level industry donations to her campaign committee.

The securities and investment industry donated $2,044,471 as of Oct. 16, 2015, according to data from the Federal Election Commission. That is 2.6 percent of the total raised by her campaign committee, which was $77.5 million as of Sept. 30, 2015.

The second part of her claim is less clear-cut. Her campaign compiled the data internally, and top donor industry data on do not support her claim: Securities and investment ranked the fourth-highest donor industry to Clinton’s candidate committee for the 2016 presidential election cycle, and education ranked fifth, at $1,955,846. According to her campaign, the student and teacher data were compiled internally.

Of course, this is a narrow view of political donations Clinton has received. It would be interesting to see how her claim holds up to the web of donors who contributed over her political career.

Robert Maguire, political nonprofits investigator at the Center for Responsive Politics (which runs OpenSecrets), said that almost any candidate can say some variation of her statement at the debate, if the candidate is referring to individual donors. “The point is that the Wall Street donors, the energy execs, and the Hollywood crowd can cut much bigger checks than the teachers, students and mechanics,” Maguire said. “As a result, the Wall Street donors are the ones who can bend her ear, and the candidate’s ear. That’s the way money works in politics.”

[Update: The Clinton campaign sent its breakdown of donations from students, teachers and retired educators, which totaled $3,090,073. This tally is higher than the data because it includes small-dollar, unreported donations that the campaign has access to, but are not publicly reported. When including unreported donations, the campaign received $2,384,562 from the securities and investment industry, the campaign said. These are donations given to her candidate committee during the 2016 election cycle.

After the debate, a blog post on noted the missing context in Clinton’s claim, mainly comparing reported Wall Street donations to the total number ($77.5 million) of donations, which includes unreported donations that can’t be tracked by the public. When comparing to the total amount of reported donations, Wall Street donations comprise 3.9 percent, according to OpenSecrets. Reported donations from people who marked “teacher” as their occupation totaled $747,493. Students are not included in the Education industry donations, as students often donate on behalf of their parents and do not necessarily represent the interests of people working in the education industry. Reported donations from people who self-identified as “students” totaled $747,493.

Further, the blog post showed how the comparisons would change if super PAC donations were included. “Taking into account donations to both outside groups and the Clinton campaign itself, Wall Street has provided about 7.2 percent of the funds backing Clinton — more than double what she said on Saturday,” according to the post.]

“Next thing we do, pay equity for women workers. Women should not be making 79 cents on the dollar compared to that.”

There is clearly a wage gap, but differences in the life choices of men and women — such as women tending to leave the workforce when they have children — make it difficult to make simple comparisons.

Sanders is using a figure (annual wages, from the Census Bureau) that makes the disparity appear the greatest—21 cents on the dollar.

But the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the gap is 18 cents when looking at weekly wages. The gap is even smaller when you look at hourly wages — 13 cents — but then not every wage earner is paid on an hourly basis, so that statistic excludes salaried workers.

In other words, since women in general work fewer hours than men in a year, the statistics used by Democrats such as Sanders may be less reliable for examining the key focus of legislation pending in Congress — wage discrimination. The weekly wage is more of an apples-to-apples comparison, but it does not include as many income categories.

Economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis surveyed economic literature and concluded that “research suggests that the actual gender wage gap (when female workers are compared with male workers who have similar characteristics) is much lower than the raw wage gap.” They cited one survey, prepared for the Labor Department under then-President George W. Bush, which concluded that when such differences are accounted for, much of the hourly wage gap dwindled, to about 5 cents on the dollar.

At ABC's Democratic presidential debate, candidate Bernie Sanders apologizes to rival Hillary Clinton for a scandal involving key voter data. (Video: ABC News)
“As soon as we learned that they looked at that information – we fired that person.”

Actually, the breach in the Democratic National Committee data system was discovered on Wednesday—and the data director, Josh Uretsky, was not fired until Thursday.

“After one Sanders account gained access to the Clinton data, the audits show, that user began sharing permissions with other Sanders users,” Bloomberg News reported. “The staffers who secured access to the Clinton data included Uretsky and his deputy, Russell Drapkin. The two other usernames that viewed Clinton information were ‘talani’ and ‘csmith_bernie,’ created by Uretsky’s account after the breach began. The logs show that the Vermont senator’s team created at least 24 lists during the 40-minute breach, which started at 10:40 a.m., and saved those lists to their personal folders.”

Uretsky has denied any valuable data was stolen. “To the best of my knowledge, nobody took anything that would have given the [Sanders] campaign any benefit,” he told CNN.

“I am the very first post-9/11 mayor and the very first post-9/11 governor. I understand, from the ground up, that when attacks like San Bernardino happen, when attacks like the attacks of 9/11 happen, that when people call 911, the first people to show up are the local first responders.”

What is O’Malley talking about? He was Baltimore mayor from 1999 through 2006, and Maryland governor from 2007 to 2015. His odd statement raised a lot of virtual eyebrows on Twitter, as users reacted in real-time after looking up the years he was elected. We asked his campaign spokeswoman, who explained as such: “He just meant that he’s the only major party candidate who was a mayor and governor after 9/11. Had to deal with the aftermath of the attacks on an executive level.”

Yes, that really is the explanation.

“We lose 33,000 people a year already to gun violence, arming more people to do what I think is not the appropriate response to terrorism.”

Clinton is essentially right: There were nearly 34,000 firearm deaths in the United States in 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But it is worth noting that more than 60 percent were from suicides, not gun violence.

“I brought people together over some very deep racial divides and we were able to put our city on the path for the biggest reduction in crimes of any major city in America over the next 10 years.”

This is one of O’Malley’s favorite stump lines, and he usually specifies that he is referring to serious crimes from 1999 to 2009. The numbers check out, but the FBI warns against comparing raw crime rates across cities, which can lead to misleading analyses about policies.

O’Malley is referring to Part 1 crimes, which are serious crimes that are likely to be reported to police. These crimes include criminal homicide, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, arson and motor vehicle theft.

FBI data confirm his calculation. The overall crime rate (the number of crimes per 100,000 people) fell by 48 percent during that decade, more than any other large police agency in the country. Specifically for violent crimes, the Baltimore City Police Department saw the third highest drop (behind Los Angeles and New York City) during the period. In 1999, Baltimore had the highest violent and property crime rate among the major police agencies in the country. In 2009, the city dropped to the 13th highest.

We often warn readers when politicians take credit for trends – like crime rates – that can’t be tracked to the policy decisions of a single politician. O’Malley’s policies as mayor may have contributed to the decline in crime rates, but there are many variables that can affect crime rates. As evidence of that, Baltimore’s crime rate trend mirrored other major cities at that time. Other major cities saw large drops leading up to 2009, with some at decades-low levels.

Plus, the FBI cautions against using reported crime figures to compile rankings of cities and counties. These rankings “lead to simplistic and/or incomplete analyses that often create misleading perceptions,” as there are many variables that factor into the unique geographic and demographic situation in a city or state.

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