With the president now averaging over six false or misleading claims per day amid big policy moves and a steadily advancing Russia investigation, it has been quite a year for fact-checking so far. Now that we’ve just passed the halfway mark in 2018, we wanted to look at our 10 most-read columns and five most-watched videos from the first six months of the year.
We did not include roundups of speeches or announcements on this list, but if we had, both our look at President Trump’s State of the Union address and his remarks on the decision to leave the Iran nuclear deal would have made the cut. Four of the 10 most-read columns dive into the president’s false statements about the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and any possible connection to the Trump campaign. Two relate to the recent uproar over family separation. And a majority look at Trump’s statements. (Although, we’re always on the hunt for statements by other politicians.)
Click on the headlines below to read the full column.
President Trump and administration officials said U.S. laws or court rulings forced them to separate families that are caught trying to illegally cross the southern border. Officials would have you believe their hands are tied. Except they aren’t.
In April 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rolled out a zero-tolerance policy that orders Department of Homeland Security officials to refer any adult “believe to have committed any crime, including illegal entry,” for prosecution. Illegal entry is a misdemeanor for first-time offenders, and conviction is grounds for deportation. The government, however, is also required to place children with family members whenever possible, and if that isn’t possible, attempt to place them in foster care.
In other words, children go through a process and are eventually placed with sponsors in the country, while their parents are prosecuted and potentially deported. This is all because the Trump administration, under its zero-tolerance policy, is choosing to prosecute border-crossing adults for any offense, something previous administrations have declined to do.
President Trump has a habit of calling the Russia probe a “witch hunt” or “fake news.” (We have catalogued at least 98 examples in our database of the president’s false or misleading claims.) In early March, he tweeted a slew of false or misleading claims about all facets of the investigation. Here’s a quick rundown:
He claimed the House Intelligence Committee had “concluded there was no collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.” (The committee made no such conclusion.) He queried the motive behind a donation to former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe’s wife’s state senate campaign from Terry McAuliffe, a longtime Clinton friend. (There’s no evidence the donation was intended to influence McCabe.) Trump took issue with special counsel’s appointment — saying it was “based on fraudulent activities and a Fake Dossier paid for by Crooked Hillary and improperly used in FISA COURT for surveillance of [his] campaign.” (It wasn’t.) Trump accused former FBI director James B. Comey of lying under oath. (The president is jumping to a conclusion without enough evidence.) Then he argued that Mueller’s team has “13 hardened Democrats, some big Crooked Hillary supporters and Zero Republicans.” (Nope. Mueller is a registered Republican. 13 of the 17 investigators on Mueller’s team are registered Democrats.)
The former president, challenged about how his sexual transgressions look in the #MeToo world, responded with a defense that stressed how much he had done for women as a politician. He bragged women were overrepresented in his office “for their percentage of the bar” when he was attorney general. That’s a weak argument considering between 1918 and 1970, only 164 women gained Arkansas law licenses. He touted the fact that he “had a sexual harassment policy when [he] was governor in the ’80s.” Except, Clinton wasn’t setting an example with the policy; his office was merely implemented new federal guidelines.
Then, while saying “nobody believes I got out of [the Lewinsky scandal] for free,” he noted that he left the White House “$16 million in debt.” He didn’t. He did have large legal debts, perhaps several million as he once said, but $16 million is a clear exaggeration. Regardless, the Clintons were able to dig themselves out of that hole fairly quickly.
President Trump announced the chief executive of U.S. Steel told him the company was opening six new major facilities. Because it is a publicly traded company, it is supposed to disclose any materially important information. This would have been huge news.
The president has a habit of citing conversations that didn’t occur quite the way he describes them. One would think this would be fairly easy to clear up but neither the White House nor the chief executive of U.S. Steel responded to inquiries. A spokeswoman for the company noted that all major announcements were posted online. There was no announcement of six new facilities.
Translation: The president is wrong. But U.S. Steel is afraid to say that out loud.
As the congressional debate over immigration reform ramped up, President Trump regularly railed against “chain migration,” including the granting of immigration visas to parents of U.S. citizens. This left several readers wondering how, exactly, the president’s in-laws were in the country. First lady Melania Trump is, after all, an immigrant, and if she sponsored their visas, Trump’s rhetoric would be hypocritical.
According to various news reports, the first lady’s parents have been living in the United States for at least a year and probably longer — possibly since the mid-2000s. Immigration experts said there were four possible explanations: They had legal permanent residence, an extended tourist visa, parole or a student visa. The most logical possibility (and, it turns out, the correct one) is also the most problematic considering the president’s policy position — they are legal permanent residents. Their attorney declined to tell The Washington Post how or when they gained their green cards.
The “Fake News Awards” had a made-for-reality-TV feeling, complete with a late-night announcement of the winners. First announced by the Republican National Committee and touted by President Trump, the awards posed a conundrum: Does it count if the news organization admits error? After all, regular readers of The Fact Checker know that we do not award Pinocchios if a politician admits error.
At least seven of the “Fake News” winners resulted in corrections, with two reports prompting suspensions or resignations. Two were simply tweets (although one made it into a news report) that were quickly corrected. One was an opinion article in which the author later retracted his prediction. And the last winner was the ongoing Russia investigation — which, as we’ve repeatedly reported, in no way is “fake news.”
This means every news organization or reported listed admitted error where appropriate. Let’s put it this way: If the president admitted error as frequently, he would earn far fewer Pinocchios.
Republicans claimed the memo written by GOP staff members of the House Intelligence Committee, which was declassified by President Trump on Feb. 2, shows how the FBI conspired with Democrats to interfere in the election and even spy on the Trump campaign. Others Republicans suggested the memo demonstrated how the Mueller investigation was based on false, politically motivated information collected in the Steele dossier. The president even claimed it cleared him.
Upon writing, the Fact Checker wondered if any of these Republicans had read the memo. The text provides no evidence that the FBI spied on the Trump campaign. Instead, it shows the court order for surveillance of former Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page was obtained after he left the campaign. It also confirms the start of the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia was not prompted by dossier produced by Christopher Steele (whose research was funded by Fusion GPS, a research company hired by a law firm representing the Clinton campaign). It certainly did not vindicate the president.
Republicans tried to flip the script on Democrats, saying it was the Clinton campaign, not the Trump campaign, that should be investigated for possible collusion with Russia. They pointed to the Steele dossier and the timing of the start of the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign as evidence.
The Clinton campaign, via a law firm, did seek “dirt” on Trump and Russia. But it’s a huge leap to say Clinton colluded with Russians to do this. Instead, you have (a) the campaign hiring (b) a research firm that hired (c) a researcher who spoke (d) to Russian sources. Steele, for his part, has suggested he tried to alert reporters and the FBI because he was appalled by what he had discovered. The closest connection to Clinton is the fact that Steele gave to the FBI material written by Clinton associates, but it’s unclear what the FBI did with that memo. Several additional pieces of intelligence came to the FBI around the same time prompting the investigation.
Plus, there is little dispute over the U.S. intelligence finding that Russia developed a clear preference for Trump — and that Russian entities hacked the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign accounts in an attempt to undermine her campaign.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) along with Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, referred Christopher Steele for a criminal investigation by the Justice Department. The vague referral was a surprise. (A redacted version was later released) But speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Graham said Steele, the author of the infamous “dossier” alleging ties between President Trump and Russia, “was shopping the dossier all over the world. That’s not what an [FBI] informant should do.”
Whether Steele was “shopping” the material is a matter of opinion, but clearly at the direction of his then-client Fusion GPS, Steele tried to interest reporters in his findings on Russia and Trump. By his own account, Steele was sufficiently alarmed by his findings that he contacted the FBI during the summer of 2016. But he was not being paid as an informant nor is it clear that his reports led the FBI to open an investigation. The bureau received intelligence from multiple sources around the same time, which suggested contact between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) told CNN his team was told there was a “policy not to admit anyone into [the shelters for immigrant children]” when he requested access to the facility in Brownsville, Tex. He also reported seeing “hundreds of children in cages” at the McAllen Border Station that were only provided “space blankets” and slept on a concrete floor.
Since Merkley’s harrowing initial description, lawmakers and reporters have been able to tour the McAllen processing center, confirming his account. The Post’s Sean Sullivan wrote: Detainees are being kept in bare-bones cells surrounded by tall metal fencing inside a sprawling facility with high ceilings. The facility resembled a large warehouse divided into cage-like structures housing different groups of people. … Several of the detainees wrapped themselves in the foil blankets as they sat on benches, the ground, or on modest mattress pads on the floor of the cells.”
However, it is Merkley’s claim that no one was admitted into the Brownsville facility that earned him Pinocchios. His claim is false, and since the senator’s failed attempt, others have been granted access.
Top five videos
We just passed our first anniversary of adding video fact-checking. Videos have given us a different option to tell particularly visual and complicated stories in new ways. Videos updating readers on our database of Trump’s false or misleading claims remain wildly popular. The ones listed below also ranked among the top performers.
Send us facts to check by filling out this form
Keep tabs on Trump’s promises with our Trump Promise Tracker
Sign up for The Fact Checker weekly newsletter