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Fact-checking the 10th GOP debate

CNN aired the 10th GOP presidential debate on Feb. 25, a prime-time event starring the five remaining aspirants for the Republican nomination.

Not every candidate uttered statements that are easily fact-checked, but the following is a list of 13 suspicious or interesting claims. As is our practice, we do not award Pinocchios when we do a roundup of facts in debates.

“You look at our borders, they’re like Swiss cheese, everybody pours in.”
— Donald Trump

Trump keeps saying undocumented immigrants are pouring over the United States-Mexico border, but that’s not correct.

Data show illegal immigration flows have fallen to their lowest level in at least two decades. The nation’s undocumented immigrant population, which more than tripled, to 12.2 million, between 1990 and 2007, has dropped by about 1 million, according to the Pew Research Center.

The flood of undocumented immigrants from Mexico peaked in 2000, when more than 1.6 million people were apprehended, according to Department of Homeland Security data. Those numbers have decreased about 400,000 per year since 2012 and continued to go down in fiscal 2015.

An estimated 7 million undocumented Mexican immigrants were living in the United States during its peak in 2007, according to the Pew Hispanic Center’s 2012 report. But there has been a sharp downward trend in net migration from Mexico since then, Pew found. Recent figures through census data are less reliable, but they suggest that the downward trend in net immigration from Mexico continued through 2014, PolitiFact reported.

“The wall is $10 billion to $12 billion, if I do it.”
— Trump 

Trump used to say that a 1,000-mile wall with Mexico would cost $8 billion, but now he says it would cost $10 billion to $12 billion. But that’s also a dubious estimate, according to experts in the construction industry, based on Trump’s previous comments that the wall would be made of precast concrete slabs, rising 35 to 40 feet in the air.

Under the Secure Fence Act of 2006, the United States has already spent $2.4 billion for fencing across nearly one-third of the border (670 miles). The Government Accountability Office in 2009 said the cost to build a mile of the fence initially averaged between $2.8 million and $3.9 million. But that was in the easiest areas, near metropolitan centers; other areas in the desert or mountains could cost as much as $16 million a mile.

Israel has spent $2.6 billion on a 325-mile-long barrier with Palestinian territories. But only one-tenth (33 miles) of the Israeli barrier is a 25-foot-high concrete wall. The other 90 percent is a six-foot-high electronic fence.

A retired construction estimator said a wall of this type would cost at least $25 billion — and that is not counting a video system to keep watch on the border. Building the wall would also require at least 40,000 workers a year for at least four years, but he doubted it could be built so quickly.

The concrete panels would need to be at least eight inches thick and be 40 feet tall (35 feet above ground and five feet underground). He estimated that it would cost about $10 billion for the concrete panels and $5 billion to $6 billion for steel columns to hold the panels, including labor. Concrete footing for the columns and a concrete foundation would add another $1 billion. A road would need to be built so 20-ton trucks could deliver the materials; that’s another $2 billion. Then you need to add another 30 percent for engineering, design, management and so forth.

Some of the calculations are staggering. The foundations would require nearly 2.5 million to 3 million cubic yards of concrete, which requires poured-in-place concrete delivered in concrete trucks. That would require 250,000 to 300,000 truckloads, 20-tons each, of concrete. Then the excavated earth would need to be hauled somewhere and disposed — nearly 3 million cubic yards, or enough soil to cover 17 acres 100 feet deep. That’s 90,000 truckloads of 40 tons each.

“What I said is that ethanol [mandate] will phase out; it is phasing out now. By 2022, that program expires by virtue of the existing law, and at that point it will go away.”
— Marco Rubio

Rubio must not have read our fact check on this very point: The ethanol mandate is not phasing out under the current law, and politicians keep getting it wrong.

The federal renewable-fuel mandate sets the minimum amount of corn-based ethanol to be mixed into gasoline to reduce or replace the amount of fossil fuel. Congress created the Renewable Fuel Standard in 2005 and set the minimum required volume of renewable fuel to be mixed into the U.S. gasoline supply each year.

Currently, the law lists the minimum volume of renewable fuel through 2022. That’s what most people refer to when they say the mandate will “expire” or “phase out” after 2022.

But that’s not correct. The mandate doesn’t go away at all. The program is set to go on indefinitely unless repealed by legislation. In fact, statutes require that after 2022 the Environmental Protection Agency set the minimum levels through regulations. The EPA administrator must use six criteria to set the new standard beyond 2022, such as the impact of renewable fuels on the energy security in the United States and on the cost of gasoline for consumers.

“I don’t mind trade wars when we’re losing $58 billion a year [to Mexico], you want to know the truth. We’re losing so much. We’re losing so much with Mexico and China — with China, we’re losing $500 billion a year.”
— Trump

Trump has the numbers right on the trade deficit with Mexico and overstates them with China — but he gets the economics very wrong in both cases. A trade deficit means that people in one country are buying more goods from another country than people in the second country are buying from the first country.

So in Mexico’s case, Americans in 2015 purchased $294 billion in goods from Mexico, while Mexico purchased $236 billion in goods from the United States. That results in a trade deficit of $58 billion. In the case of China, Americans in 2015 bought $482 billion in goods from China, while Chinese purchased $116 billion from the U.S., for a trade deficit of $366 billion.

But that money is not “lost.” Americans wanted to buy those products. If Trump sparked a trade war and tariffs were increased on those Chinese goods, then it would raise the cost of those goods to Americans. Perhaps that would reduce the purchases of those goods, and thus reduce the trade deficit — but that would not mean the United States would “gain” money that had been lost.

Trump frequently suggests, as he did in the debate, that Mexico could pay for the wall out of the $58 billion trade deficit. But that is nonsensical. The trade deficit does not go to the government; it just indicates that Americans are buying more goods from Mexico than the other way around.

Ted Cruz “has been criticizing my sister for signing a certain bill. You know who else signed that bill? Justice Samuel Alito, a very conservative member of the Supreme Court, with my sister, signed that bill.”
— Trump

Trump is referring to a partial-birth abortion ban against which his sister and Alito ruled against in 2000 while on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit.

Cruz has been attacking Trump for floating the name of his sister, Maryanne Trump Barry, to be a justice. Cruz has called Barry a “hardcore pro-abortion liberal,” particularly over the 2000 ruling. (PolitiFact has written about this Cruz talking point.)

In 2000, Barry wrote the majority opinion that overturned a New Jersey ban on partial-birth abortions. Alito was, as Trump says, a 3rd Circuit judge at the time. He agreed with Barry on the ruling.

Alito made the decision based on precedent, NPR reported:

Alito voted to overturn the ban based on the fact that the Supreme Court had struck down a similar law in Nebraska just weeks before. Alito’s deference to the Supreme Court’s precedence is notable, said Kathy Cleaver-Ruse. “In this case, we have Judge Alito showing more restraint than the majority judges, by saying ‘Look, we need to follow Supreme Court precedent,'” she said. “It’s not proper for us to go off on our own, write our own opinion about the law.”

“If you look at the eight members of the Gang of Eight, Donald gave over $50,000 to three Democrats and two Republicans. And when you’re funding open border politicians, you shouldn’t be surprised when they fight for open borders.”
— Ted Cruz

Cruz continues to suggest that Trump financed the Gang of Eight. But it’s a misleading argument; the majority of donations was made long before the 2013 Gang of Eight’s support for comprehensive immigration reform.

Campaign finance records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics via show Trump directly donated to five of the eight members of the Gang of Eight. These direct donations were made for the senators’ federal elections and add up to $30,900, not $50,000.

The donations:

  • $9,000 to Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) in 1996-2010
  • $2,000 to Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) in 2006-2007
  • $1,500 to Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) in 1996 and 2007
  • $15,800 to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2005-2008
  • $2,600 to Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) in 2014
 “The insurance companies are making an absolute fortune” because of Obamacare.
— Trump

Trump keeps saying this, but he must not be reading the financial section of newspapers these days. For many insurance companies, the Affordable Care Act has been a money-loser.

For instance, UnitedHealthcare Group, one of the biggest insurance companies, announced in January that it had lost $720 million in the new exchanges in 2015, after enrolling 500,000 people. UnitedHealthcare had aimed to be a major player in the Obamacare marketplace, but it announced it might pull out completely in 2017 after a review in the coming months. The company has already halted advertising for new plans.

“If you look at what’s going on, we have the highest taxes anywhere in the world.”

As a billionaire, Trump probably personally faces high tax rates. But the statistics don’t lie — the United States isn’t anywhere near the top among industrialized nations.

In 2014, according to comparative tables of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), revenue as a percentage of the gross domestic product — the broadest measure of the economy — was 26 percent for the United States.

Out of 34 countries, that put the United States in the bottom third — and well below the OECD average of 34.4 percent.

At the top of the list was Denmark, often cited by Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders as a model. Denmark topped the list with revenue at 50.9 percent of GDP.

“When they passed Obamacare, they put a bailout fund in Obamacare. … We led the effort and wiped out that bailout fund.”
 — Rubio

Rubio overstates the case here.

At issue is something called “risk corridors” — a provision of the massive law that was intended to protect insurance companies from losses if they did not properly estimate premiums in the initial three years of the law. Companies that estimated correctly — and had what were deemed as excess profits — would pay fees to help underwrite at least some of the cost of helping the insurance companies that had stumbled.

The fund was not wiped out; Congress instead blocked the administration from using taxpayer funds to make up an unexpected gap in contributions from insurance companies. The restriction ultimately left a $2.5 billion shortfall in the risk-corridor program in 2015, as the administration collected only $362 million in user fees — and insurers who misjudged the market sought nearly $2.9 billion in payments. Nearly a dozen nonprofit insurance cooperatives have failed as a result.

Rubio claims he “led the effort.” As we have documented, the hard legislative work, including slipping a key provision into a spending bill that blocked the payments, was done by other lawmakers.

“Here’s a guy that buys a house for $179,000, he sells it to a lobbyist who’s probably here for $380,000 and then legislation is passed. You tell me about this guy. This is what we’re going to have as president.”
— Trump

Trump attacked Rubio for pulling a classic “pay to play” move, but created a misleading impression of what really happened.

Then-Gov. Charlie Crist and the Republican-led Florida Senate wanted to extend personal injury protection, a type of auto insurance coverage that paid drivers and passengers for accident injuries regardless of who was at fault. Among those who supported this extension were hospitals and health insurers. Rubio and others in the Florida House opposed extending the coverage, saying the system encouraged fraud.

PolitiFact Florida did a deep dive on this issue when Crist lodged a similar attack against Rubio. It wrote that Rubio was “the key impediment” to extending the coverage even with minor fraud protections, and it made him “a target of doctors and chiropractors lobbying to support” the coverage.

One of the chiropractors who supported the coverage was Mark Cereceda, whose mother was buying Rubio’s house. Rubio knew Cereceda wanted the insurance extension.

Rubio purchased the home for $175,000 in 2003 and sold it for $380,000 in 2007. It was a good deal for Rubio but not an outrageous price for the market at the time, PolitiFact Florida wrote. The Miami-Dade property appraiser categorized the sale as a “qualified” sale meeting the arms-length definition, indicating that the seller and buyer were both willing and did not face pressure or incentives, PolitiFact Florida reported.

The sale was finalized April 13. The legislative session ended May 4, without an extension on personal injury protection. Then, during a special session, legislators worked out compromise legislation that included anti-fraud provisions. The provisions appeared to be satisfactory to Rubio, who voted for the extension.

PolitiFact Florida found that while the circumstances were coincidental, no evidence supported the implication that Rubio changed his vote because of the sale.

“It will have to end at some moment, and as I said, we will eliminate that executive order. The people that are on it now will not be allowed to renew it, and new applicants will not be allowed to apply to it [DACA]. … The problem with the executive order is it is unconstitutional. The president doesn’t have the power to do that. And he himself admitted that.”
— Rubio

While saying he would repeal the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, Rubio mixed up the 2012 executive action on DACA with Obama’s sweeping executive actions in 2014.

In 2012, Obama created DACA through executive action, protecting unauthorized immigrants who entered the United States as children from deportation. Rubio has promised to end DACA if he becomes president. He said that he would “eliminate that executive order,” which Obama “admitted” was unconstitutional.

Then in 2014, Obama changed his mind on using executive actions to enact comprehensive immigration changes. The Fact Checker awarded Obama an Upside-Down Pinocchio for changing his mind. Obama had said repeatedly that he was not a “king” nor an “emperor” and that his job was to execute the laws that Congress passed.

But when comprehensive immigration reform stalled in Congress, Obama decided to enact executive actions to shield millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation. But that’s different than Obama “admitting” his earlier action was unconstitutional.

It [Obamcare] is a health-care law that is basically forcing companies to lay people off, cut people’s hours, move people to part-time. It is not just a bad health-care law, it is a job-killing law.” 
– Rubio
 “I want to end it because it goes too far; it’s killed millions of jobs.”
— Cruz

Both men claim that the health-care law has been horrible for jobs — Cruz even claims it’s “killed millions of jobs”— but there is slim evidence that jobs have been lost. (In fact, the unemployment rate is now under 5 percent.) Recent, detailed studies have found that the Affordable Care Act had little impact on employment patterns.

One study, published in January in the journal Health Affairs, examined census data and found no increase in the likelihood of working part time, except for a 0.18 percentage point increase in the likelihood of working 25 to 29 hours per week between 2013 and 2014 — a trend that predated the ACA. Even the researchers said the findings were surprising, given widespread reporting of scattered companies that said they had moved some workers to part-time work in response to the health-care law.

Thus far, however, it appears such anecdotal reports do not reflect a trend with any real impact on employment.

 “I took $1 million and I turned into $10 billion.”
— Trump

Trump lowballs one number and highballs the other. Trump has suggested he got his start when he obtained a $1 million loan from his father. “My father gave me a small loan of a million dollars,” he told NBC in October, which he claimed he had to pay back with interest. “A million dollars isn’t very much compared to what I built.”

But that ignores the fact that he joined his father’s thriving real estates business after college and that he relied on his father’s connections as he made his way in the real estate world. Nor does it count the estimated $40 million he received as an inheritance in 1974.

(Note: Rubio at one point in the debate said Trump inherited $200 million. That’s believed to be the value of the father’s company, but Trump had to split it with his four siblings. When Trump’s father died in 1999, his will left “at least $20 million” to Trump and three siblings, but not to the family of Donald’s older, late brother, according to a New York Times article. The family of Freddy Trump sued, claiming Donald Trump and the other siblings used “undue influence” over the father to cut them out of the will, and a settlement was reached.)

Many experts doubt he is really worth as much as $10 billion. Bloomberg News pegged his net worth at $2.9 billion, based on an analysis of his personal financial disclosure form.

Max Ehrenfreund of The Washington Post’s Wonkblog documented that Trump’s business performance was actually relatively poor given the massive real estate assets that he inherited from his father. Citing an independent evaluation, Business Week put Trump’s net worth at $100 million in 1978. Ehrenfreund said that had Trump gotten out of real estate entirely, put his money in an index fund based on the S&P 500 and reinvested the dividends, he’d be worth twice as much — $6 billion — today.

Top quotes from the tenth Republican presidential debate

10th GOP debate

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Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated the state represented by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).

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