The congressional campaign for Mark Kirk released a campaign ad targeting rival Tammy Duckworth over her stance on accepting Syrian refugees to the United States. (YouTube/Mark Kirk)

“Tammy Duckworth wants to accept 20 times more refugees than the president — 200,000.”

— Voiceover in new Mark Kirk ad, which is followed by video of Duckworth saying, “I signed on for 200,000 refugees.”

Sen. Mark Kirk (Ill.) is one of the most endangered Republicans in the Senate, facing a tough race against Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) in a blue state. Kirk, who worked in the State Department and the military, is especially challenging Duckworth — who lost her legs as a helicopter pilot in the Iraq war — on national security issues. In this ad, he suggests that she is putting American lives at risk by wanting to accept 200,000 refugees from Syria.

A reader asked us to examine this ad, noting that Kirk regularly says in speeches that Duckworth wants to accept 200,000 refugees from Syria. The reader wanted to know whether this is indeed the case.

The Facts

If the figure “200,000 refugees” seems familiar to readers, it’s because we have regularly criticized Donald Trump for falsely claiming that President Obama wants to admit that many refugees from Syria. In reality, Obama has committed to accepting only 10,000 refugees from Syria. The administration also committed to accepting 185,000 refugees from all countries in 2016 and 2017.

The ad, to its credit, recognizes that reality, saying, “Duckworth wants to accept 20 times more refugees than the president.”

But the Duckworth campaign is adamant that she has never said that she wants to accept 200,000 refugees from Syria. The campaign points to a congressional letter, spearheaded by Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), that she signed in September that called for accepting 100,000 refugees from Syria and 200,000 overall just in 2016, based on a request from Refugee Council USA. That is still far more than Obama — 10 times as much — but it is half the figure cited in the ad.

The letter, which also called for additional security checks, was issued Sept. 11, 2015, a day after Obama said he would accept 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016. But the letter appears to have had little effect. Just nine days later, the administration announced its plan to accept 185,000 refugees overall over two years.

Okay, now let’s fast forward to a news conference held in November, which is from where the Kirk campaign got the video clip of Duckworth saying, “I signed on for 200,000 refugees.”

Frustratingly, there appears to be no full audio or video of the questions and answers at the news conference. Even the Duckworth campaign claims it has no audio, though it is standard operating procedure for campaigns — even those for school boards — to record every utterance made by a candidate.

The Fact Checker has never encountered a Senate campaign that claimed it did not have audio of a recent news conference. Duckworth spokesman Matt McGrath said it is SOP to record events, but it did not happen in this case.  “We don’t have one on this,” he said. “And we’re not disputing what she said, we’re disputing the context.”

In McGrath’s telling, Duckworth was referencing the Cicilline letter, which called for admitting 200,000 from all countries. “I think she spoke in a shorthand that was clear to all present, especially since the Kirk campaign had prepped the entire Chicago press corps on the Cicilline letter in the first place,” he said.

But the reporters who were there say they specifically asked about 200,000 refugees from Syria. Greg Hinz of Crain’s Chicago Business said: “I asked her about 200,000 for Syria because the buzz here is that was her true position. She responded as reported.”

​Bill Cameron, a radio reporter at WLS, said: “I attended the 11-15-15 presser in which we asked questions about how many Syrian refugees the U.S. should accept and she said 200,000 refugees.”

Cameron provided The Fact Checker with audio of Duckworth’s full answer, which started: “I actually signed on to take more than what the president proposed. I signed on for two hundred thousand refugees.” (The rest of her answer was a personal account of how she would feel if she were a refugee with a baby.)

Duckworth’s repeated use of “signed on” certainly could be a reference to the letter. As far as we know, no major refugee organization has called for admitting 200,000 refugees from Syria. At the same time, it seems strange that Duckworth would be talking about the total number of refugees when the key issue for debate is how many to accept from Syria.

Charles Thomas, a political reporter at the local ABC News affiliate, acknowledged that “there always has been some confusion regarding the ‘200,000’ she mentioned/referenced. Access to her was limited in the month before the [primary] election. It’s an issue still in need of clarification.”

In any case, Duckworth’s answer resulted in a pile of clips in which it was stated that she called for accepting 200,000 refugees from Syria. Hinz, whose article became a source for other reporters, said he never was asked by the campaign to correct his report. Not until the “200,000” figure regularly began appearing in Kirk attacks — and after the shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., raised alarm about refugees — did the Duckworth campaign move to obtain corrections, such as in an AP report in January.

Kevin Artl, a Kirk campaign spokesman, stands by using the 200,000 figure, noting that it was widely reported at the time. “She should publicly clarify her position and then, if we willfully misrepresent it, then feel free to whack us,” he said. “But right now, we are in good company with these credible news outlets and all they have is a letter written two months prior to her November press conference — a presser with conveniently missing audio.”

The Pinocchio Test

What we have here are two campaigns that refuse to admit error. Duckworth misspoke — or certainly did not speak clearly — and yet refuses to publicly clarify her position. The Kirk campaign, having been given a golden soundbite, wants to play a game of gotcha.

We don’t find it very credible that the Duckworth campaign lacks audio of a recent news conference — and our interviews with reporters at the news conference indicates that she was specifically asked about the number of refugees from Syria. At the same time, it seems strange that she would suddenly double the number she wanted to accept from Syria. Her phrasing also suggests that she was talking about the letter she signed that called for 100,000 refugees.

Ironically, Duckworth’s apparent position — 100,000 — is still far more than what the Obama administration has said it would accept. We’re not sure what the Kirk campaign gains by saying “20 times” rather than “10 times”—except that it is misleading voters about Duckworth’s apparent position.

Both sides need to come clean. Duckworth should state clearly her current position on accepting Syrian refugees, given that circumstances may have changed since September. The Kirk campaign should drop the 200,000 figure, given that it appears based on a single statement that may have been misinterpreted or poorly phrased. 

We wavered as to whether Kirk’s use of the 200,000 figure was worthy of One or Two Pinocchios. The preponderance of evidence suggests that Duckworth misspoke, and The Fact Checker frowns on campaigns that frame attack ads around gaffes. But it would be an easier ruling if the Duckworth campaign had quickly tried to correct the coverage of her remarks. As it turned out, every news organization at the time reported her remarks as meaning 200,000 refugees from Syria, giving the Kirk campaign an opening to tag that figure as her official position. 

One Pinocchio


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