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Fact-checking the 12th GOP debate

At the CNN debate in Miami, GOP candidates sparred over immigration, social security, how to talk about Muslims and more. Here are the key moments. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

CNN aired the 12th GOP presidential debate on March 10, a prime-time event starring the four remaining aspirants for the Republican nomination.

Not every candidate uttered statements that are easily fact checked, but the following is a list of 16 suspicious or interesting claims. As is our practice, we do not award Pinocchios when we do a roundup of facts in debates.

Common Core is “education through Washington, D.C.
I don’t want that.”
— Donald Trump

Trump continues to say Common Core is flawed because it is a federally run program enacted from Washington, imposed on local governments. But it has been, and still is, a state-led effort where governors and school chiefs set the standards. It has been a state-led effort, and states have opted into adopting the standards.

There was something revealing during Thursday night’s debate: When moderator Jake Tapper pushed back, Trump agreed that Common Core is, indeed, a state-led effort. But it’s been “taken over by Washington,” Trump continued, and is a “disaster.” But the federal government didn’t “take over” Common Core.

It remains a state-led program. States revise the standards to fit their state, and then allow state and local school districts to shape the curriculums for themselves. And in December, Congress actually took measures to scale back the federal government’s power when it comes to local governments. This federal education law explicitly states that the federal government can’t influence local decisions about academic standards, according to our colleague Lyndsey Layton.

More than 40 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core K-12 academic standards in math and reading.

“Very importantly, the Disney workers endorsed me.”
— Donald Trump

There were 250 tech workers at Walt Disney World who lost their jobs after the company allegedly replaced them with foreign workers with temporary H-1B visas. Two workers, Leo Perrero and Dena Moore, have filed lawsuits in federal court seeking class-action status. Perrero and Moore have endorsed Trump, but it would be wrong to suggest that all of the Disney workers have endorsed Trump.

“I actually got the budget balanced when I was a member of the Congress, the chairman of the budget committee.”
— John Kasich

Kasich likes to make this claim, but it really overstates the role of the Congress in which he served.

Kasich actually voted against two big deficit-reduction deals advanced by Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton in 1990 and 1993, which raised taxes and helped set the stage for the dramatic increases in revenue that eliminated the budget deficit. But even those deals were not intended to achieve balanced budgets.

When Republicans took control of Congress in 1994 — and Kasich became chairman of the Budget Committee — they did put the notion of a balanced budget on the policy agenda.

But Washington also got lucky because there were economic forces that had little to do with either Democrats or Republicans: A gusher of tax revenue emerged, primarily from capital-gains taxes, because of the run-up in the stock market, as well as taxes paid on stock options earned by technology executives.

From 1992 to 1997, the Congressional Budget Office estimated, tax revenue increased at an annual average of 7.7 percent in nominal terms, or about 2.4 percentage points faster than the growth of the gross domestic product, the broadest measure of the economy. CBO Deputy Director James L. Blum in 1998 attributed only one percentage point of that extra tax revenue to the 1993 budget deal. The rest, he said, came from capital gains.

Between 1994 and 1999, realized capital gains nearly quadrupled, the CBO concluded, with taxes on those gains accounting for about 30 percent of the increased growth of individual income tax liabilities relative to the growth of GDP. There were other factors as well, such as lower-than-expected health costs that reduced an expected drain on the budget.

Bush also had kicked in motion a huge decline in defense spending (which Clinton accelerated) and also had overseen a painful restructuring of the banking industry. Even a potential shock, such as the Asian financial crisis in 1997, brought the silver lining of lower oil prices that bolstered the U.S. economy.

“Ted [Cruz] did change his view on ethanol, quite a bit.”
— Donald Trump

Actually, Cruz has not changed his view on the ethanol mandate; he consistently has opposed it.

Many have criticized Cruz for flip-flopping because he initially supported ending the program in 2020, then told Iowa voters he supports a gradual phase-out of the program with ultimate repeal by 2022. Since 2014, Cruz has proposed a five-year phase-out of the federal renewable-fuel mandate, which sets the minimum amount of corn-based ethanol to be mixed into gasoline to reduce or replace the amount of fossil fuel.

But Cruz had not specified when the phase-out would begin. Now, he says he wants it to start in 2017, his first year as president if elected. The phase-out would be completed with an ultimate repeal by 2022.

“As an example, GDP was zero essentially for the last two quarters.
— Trump

This is wrong. The gross domestic product — the broadest measure of the economy — increased at a rate of 1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2015 and 2 percent in the third quarter, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. That’s not great, but it’s better than zero. 

“The devaluations of their currencies by China and Japan and many, many other countries, and we don’t do it because we don’t play the game.”
— Trump

Trump is way out of date here. China has been spending hundreds of billions of dollars in recent months — $90 billion in January alone — to prop up the value of its currency as its economy slows. The Japanese yen is also very strong, and with brief exceptions, Japan has not intervened to devalue its currency since 2004.

“Eighty-three percent of the federal budget in less than five years will all be spent on Medicare, Medicaid, the interest on the debt.”
— Marco Rubio

Rubio is off the mark, and overstates the 83 percent figure by nearly 20 percentage points.

Medicare, Medicaid, interest on the debt and Social Security are estimated to take up 61 percent of the spending by 2022, and 65 percent by 2026, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget’s analysis of the Congressional Budget Office projections. When you include all mandatory spending programs, the share would be 75 percent in 2022.

Rubio’s estimates would have been more accurate if he were talking about the share of spending growth going to such budget items over the next five years, according to CRFB. Total spending on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and interest will account for 83 percent of the growth in spending ($1 trillion of $1.2 trillion), CRFB says.

“One out of five Americans works in a job connected to trade; 38 million Americans are connected to it.
— Kasich

Kasich appears to be citing a statistic touted by a group known as Trade Benefits America, a coalition of business groups. It’s not entirely clear from the group’s website how this figure was calculated, but one should generally take a jaundiced view of claims made by trade groups. Notably, a 50-page White House report issued in 2015 to tout the benefits of trade did not make such sweeping job claims.

The United States has “the smallest Navy in a century.”
— Rubio

This used to be a staple claim during GOP debates that went away for a few debates, but it returned thanks to Rubio. This zombie claim about the shrinking Navy just won’t go away. Fact checkers have repeatedly debunked this Three Pinocchio claim in the 2012 presidential elections.

The current number of ships in the Navy is 272. It is the lowest count since 1916, when there were 245 ships. A lot has changed in 100 years, including the need and capacity of ships. After all, it’s a now a matter of modern nuclear-powered fleet carriers, versus gunboats and small warships of 100 years ago. The push for ships under the Reagan era (to build the Navy up to 600-ship levels) no longer exists, and ships from that era are now retiring.

There are other ways to measure seapower than just the sheer number of ships, according to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus: “That’s pretty irrelevant. We also have fewer telegraph machines than we did in World War I and we seem to be doing fine without that.… Look at the capability. Look at the missions that we do.” Plus, the Navy is on track to grow to just over 300 ships, approximately the size that a bipartisan congressional panel has recommended for the current Navy.

“The Ayatollah Khomeini wants nuclear weapons to murder us.
— Ted Cruz

Officially, Iran has denied any intention to develop nuclear weapons. In fact, the Obama administration has often noted that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the successor of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as Iran’s supreme leader, has issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons. (A fatwa is a ruling by a religious authority, often with judicial implications.)

The Fact Checker in 2013 looked closely at whether the fatwa actually was issued, and determined the evidence for it is rather fuzzy. It appeared to exist mainly as part of Iran’s diplomatic portfolio to insist its nuclear ambitions were innocent in nature.

In any case, the international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program has, at least for the moment, halted and reduced the scale of the program. Moreover, Khamenei has not threatened to use nuclear weapons against the United States.

“They drown 40, 50, 60 people at a time in big steel cages, pull them up an hour later.”
— Trump

Trump exaggerates a horrific practice by the terrorist group known as ISIS. The group in 2015 released a seven-minute video that showed a cage with five men being drowned. The graphic video, which is very difficult to watch, depicted punishments by drowning, grenade launcher and explosive cables tied around prisoner’ necks. The section on the cage drownings used underwater cameras that purported to show the men thrashing around until they lost consciousness.

“One of the things I’m proudest of in my time in the U.S. senate is working with Jeff Miller of Florida in a bipartisan way – I’ll give him credit, Bernie Sanders was a part of this. We passed the VA accountability bill.… Because of the law I passed, it gives the VA secretary … the power to fire people who aren’t doing a good job.”
— Rubio

Rubio does not often get credit for this, as he was not a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. But he did, indeed, introduce legislation in February 2014 to give the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs authority to fire or demote senior managers for incompetence or misconduct.

Florida was one of the states where early reports of mismanagement within the VA surfaced, prior to the high-profile scandal that erupted in April 2014. Rubio and Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, had worked on giving then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki this authority since early 2014.

The bill ultimately was included in the larger legislation that Congress passed later in 2014 to overhaul the VA. Rubio was on a bipartisan House-Senate conference committee that negotiated the broader VA bill.

“This administration started with President Obama sending back the bust of Winston Churchill to the United Kingdom within the opening weeks.”
— Cruz 

This is a complicated tale, but Cruz really overstates the case. We had previously given him two Pinocchios for this line.

The Winston Churchill bust in question was originally provided in July 2001 by then-Prime Minister Tony Blair as a loan to President George W. Bush. The bust, now about 70 years old, was made by English sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein, and Bush said he would keep it in the Oval Office. Various news reports at the time said the bust would be returned once Bush left office.

The White House residence, meanwhile, has another bust of Churchill, also sculpted by Epstein, which was given to President Lyndon B. Johnson on Oct. 6, 1965. (Here’s Lady Bird Johnson’s diary entry about the  gift, which was facilitated by Churchill’s wartime friends, including Averell Harriman.)

When Obama took office, the Epstein bust loaned by Blair was returned to the British government, and the U.K. ambassador installed it in his residence. According to a 2010 interview with White House curator William Allman, the decision to return the bust was made even before Obama arrived, as the loan was scheduled to last only as long as Bush’s presidency.

But the British press, always eager for any sign of rockiness in the U.S.-British relationship, had a field day with the return of the bust.

There is no evidence that Obama personally decided to return the bust; given the economic crisis at the time, one imagines he had bigger issues on his mind. Perhaps someone on his staff should have recognized the symbolic value in retaining the bust, but the odds are the machinery of the transition just moved forward on its own.

Cruz, without evidence, states that this was clearly Obama’s decision — “within the opening weeks” — and then imbues great significance to that fact. But he’s really creating a mountain out of a molehill.

 “I said that is a strong, powerful government that put it down with strength. And then they kept down the riot. It was a horrible thing.
— Trump

Trump referred to the massacre of pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square on June 3, 1989, as “a riot.” But the protests, while large, were mainly peaceful. However, when martial law was declared, protesters blocked the army from advancing to clear the square. The military opened fire on demonstrators, with unofficial estimates suggesting as many as 1,000 were killed. (The official tally is closer to 300.)

The Chinese government, which was condemned by most countries around the world for its actions, at the time referred to the protests as a “counterrevolutionary riot.”

“Other than very small donations where people are sending in $200, $15, $20, and we have some of that, but it’s not a large amount. No, I’m self-funding my campaign, and the reason is that I’ve been in this business a long time and I was on the other side — until eight months ago I was on the or side.… The other thing is, I beat Hillary, and I will give you the list, I beat Hillary in many of the polls that have been taken.”
— Trump

Trump continues to assert that he’s “self-funding” his campaign, but that’s not correct. Anyone who goes to will see the “Donate” button prominently featured on his home page.

Trump has provided the majority of funds raised by the campaign committee so far. Of the $25.5 million raised as of Jan. 31, 2016, 70 percent ($17.8 million) was money from Trump. At least $12.6 million of that was a loan from Trump to his campaign.

The rest came from mostly individual contributions, according to the most recent Federal Elections Commission data maintained by the Center for Responsive Politics. While Trump says most of the contributions that came from other donors are in smaller amounts, 1,911 donors gave between $200 and $2,700, data show.

As of Feb. 22, 2016, outside groups had contributed $1.9 million to the Trump campaign. As for polling for general election matchups, it’s unclear just how many is “many” to Trump. But most general election polls show Trump losing to Clinton. And it’s not just Clinton; her rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), also beats Trump in most general election matchups, according to a list of election polling maintained by

“I think whoever gets to the top position as opposed to solving that artificial number that was by somebody, which is a very random number, I think that whoever gets the most delegates should win.
— Trump

Trump falsely claimed that the requirement to have 1,237 delegates to win the Republican presidential number is a “random number.” He’s wrong. There are 2,472 total delegates to the convention, so the number is a simple majority — 50 percent (1,236), plus 1.

Top quotes from the 12th Republican presidential debate


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