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Trump versus Clinton: The Pinocchio count so far

(Associated Press Photos/Mary Altaffer, Chuck Burton)

Both major-party candidates have unusually high disapproval ratings. But how do they compare on The Pinocchio Test?

[NEW: We now have a special web page devoted to comparing the candidates, updated daily. Follow this link to see it.]

With the Republican and Democratic national conventions unfolding over the next two weeks, it seems an appropriate time to take stock of more than a year of fact checks of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. All told, The Washington Post Fact Checker has scrutinized their statements more than 100 times, not counting claims they made in primary debates.

Not every fact check resulted in a rating. Trump’s claims were rated 52 times, compared with 36 for Clinton.

Why were so many more of Trump’s claims rated? In large part, it is because he made so many public appearances, sometimes several times a day on television or radio programs. The Fact Checker responds to reader requests, and many of Trump’s statements were provocative and controversial.

By contrast, Clinton tended to give few relatively few interviews. Many of her remarks were confined to prepared speeches, not off-the-cuff remarks. About one-third of Clinton’s claims that my colleague Michelle Ye Hee Lee and I checked concerned the revelation that she had a private email server when she was secretary of state — remarks that certainly prompted reader inquiries and concerns.

Clinton is a professional politician, with a large staff that will readily respond to fact-checking questions. Often, Clinton’s staff can quickly provide documentation that backs up, or at least explains, the facts and figures that she cites. By contrast, Trump’s small staff rarely responds to fact-checking inquiries and never provides an explanation for his statements.

Trump is also the rare politician who will repeat false claims, over and over, even after they have been debunked by fact-checking organizations. Most politicians will simply stop repeating a claim after receiving Four Pinocchios, our worst rating.

We obviously cannot vet every claim made by a candidate, so it is admittedly a self-selected list. But we focus on statements about newsworthy topics or that shed light on important policy issues. We do not play gotcha, and so avoid scrutiny of obvious misstatements (especially if a candidate admits error). We also do not assess obviously true statements, but prefer to focus on claims that are surprisingly true. Moreover, we have now vetted so many claims that the Pinocchio tally is a useful basis for comparison.

Here’s the tally so far. Three Pinocchios could be viewed as mostly false, Two Pinocchios as half-true, One Pinocchio as mostly true and the rarely given Geppetto as completely true.

Trump (52 rated claims)

Four Pinocchios: 33 (63 percent)

Three Pinocchios: 11 (21 percent)

Two Pinocchios: 5 (10 percent)

One Pinocchio: 1 (2 percent)

Geppetto Checkmark: 2 (4 percent).

Clinton (36 rated claims)

Four Pinocchios: 5 (14 percent)

Three Pinocchios: 13 (36 percent)

Two Pinocchios: 11 (30.5 percent)

One Pinocchio: 2 (5.5 percent)

Geppetto Checkmark: 5 (14 percent)

As you see, the ratio of Trump’s Four-Pinocchios ratings is sky-high. In fact, nearly 85 percent of Trump’s claims that we vetted were false or mostly false. A line graph of Trump’s numbers would show a very steep sky jump. By contrast, Clinton has a bell curve of a typical politician. The number of false claims equals the number of true claims, while her other claims fall mostly somewhere in the middle.

Clinton earned Four Pinocchios for a fanciful and tendentious claim that illegal immigrants, as a group, pay more in taxes than some corporations. She also falsely stated that the Defense of Marriage Act was enacted to thwart an anti-gay-marriage amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But both of these were close calls, as we nearly made them Three Pinocchios.

More problematic was Clinton’s claim that U.S. prisons are overflowing with inmates mainly because of marijuana convictions. (In fiscal year 2014, in the federal system, 187 inmates (0.9 percent) were sentenced for simple drug possession — of whom 75 were jailed for marijuana possession.) Clinton also made the absurd claim that she was the only candidate in either party who had a plan to both raise incomes and not raise middle-class taxes.

Clinton earned a bushel of Pinocchios for her claims about her email arrangement. After the conclusion of the FBI investigation, we elevated the Pinocchio count on her statements that she did not send or receive classified material, which she sometimes specified as “marked or designated classified.” While the markings found on her emails are now being disputed, the FBI has confirmed there were 110 emails that contained classified information at the time they were sent or received.

Trump’s Four-Pinocchios claims are too numerous to tally; we even have created a Web page that contains a complete list. The volume of his false claims is extraordinary, especially because he so often repeats them.  He continued to say that he saw thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrate the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when that never happened. He repeatedly says he opposed the Iraq war from the start, when that’s false. He constantly says the Islamic State terrorist group controls the oil in Libya, when that’s wrong. He routinely inflates the unemployment rate from 4.9 percent to as high as 42 percent.

In that sense, the raw numbers do little justice for how cavalier Trump is with the facts; there’s certainly never been a major-party politician with Trump’s Four-Pinocchio score.

As Trump and Clinton officially become their party’s nominees, here’s hoping that both improve their Pinocchio scores in the final months of the presidential campaign. We’ll be watching closely.

[NEW: We now have a special web page devoted to comparing the candidates, updated daily. Follow this link to see it.]

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