Forest fires in California. An automatic recount in tight Florida races for senator and governor. A stock market plunge.
President Trump’s Twitter finger has been itchy the past few days, fanning the flames of conspiracy theories and offering speculation without evidence. We asked the White House for evidence for his statements but heard nothing back. Here’s a guide to the Four-Pinocchio fury.
“There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”
— Tweet, Nov. 10
As the most destructive wildfire in California history was raging, Trump pinned the blame on state officials and their “gross mismanagement of the forests.”
His tweet is wrong on several levels.
First, experts say the wildfires besetting the state were not sparked by forest management problems such as an overpopulation of trees or dead trees.
“The ones in Southern California are burning in chaparral, so it’s not a forest management issue at all,” said LeRoy Westerling, a climate and fire researcher at the University of California at Merced. “The fire in Northern California didn’t start in forest; it started in other types of vegetation, from what I read. … There, you’re talking about what kind of vegetation people manage on their homes on private properties.”
He added, “It seems like they’re conflating the forest management issue, which is primarily in federal land in California, with all the other causes of fires in the state, and that doesn’t seem reasonable.”
That brings us to our second point. Some California forests appear to have many more trees per acre than what is considered healthy, according to an expert cited by the San Francisco Chronicle. But more than half of the state’s forested land is managed by the federal government. The U.S. Forest Service says the “rising costs of fighting fires has led [it] to regularly raid its $600 million budget for forest management,” according to the Sacramento Bee.
Even if poor forest management had caused these fires, the ball would be in Trump’s court, not the state government’s.
Third, the scientific consensus is that climate change is the big driver of these intensifying wildfires, although other factors such as forest management play a (smaller) role.
A 2016 study of western U.S. forests published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found “human-caused climate change caused over half of the documented increases in fuel aridity since the 1970s and doubled the cumulative forest fire area since 1984.”
“We estimate that human-caused climate change contributed to an additional 4.2 million ha [hectares] of forest fire area during 1984—2015, nearly doubling the forest fire area expected in its absence,” authors John T. Abatzoglou and A. Park Williams wrote. “Natural climate variability will continue to alternate between modulating and compounding anthropogenic increases in fuel aridity, but anthropogenic climate change has emerged as a driver of increased forest fire activity and should continue to do so while fuels are not limiting.”
Westerling put it this way: “It can be exacerbated or compounded by problems in other areas, if you’ve mismanaged vegetation or something like that, [but] we wouldn’t be seeing fires of the kind we’re seeing without climate change.”
Finally, Trump is wrong to claim the federal government sends billions of dollars “each year” in forest-fire aid to California. The Sacramento Bee in October found “the U.S. government has spent about $1.4 billion the past two years dealing with wildfires in California.”
Trump blames California for these fires at virtually every turn. He was also wrong in August when he claimed poor water management was feeding the problem, according to an Associated Press fact check.
“Rick Scott was up by 50,000+ votes on Election Day, now they ‘found’ many votes and he is only up 15,000 votes. ‘The Broward Effect.' How come they never find Republican votes?”
— Tweet, Nov. 9
Trump’s tweet suggests only votes for Democrats were counted, as he asks “how come they never find any Republican votes?” But guess what? They did! It’s just that more votes were counted for the Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson than for Republican challenger Gov. Rick Scott. Broward tilts heavily toward Democrats, so it would be expected that Democrats would close the margin as votes in the county were tabulated. So far, Nelson has gained about 46,000 votes, compared to about 24,000 for Scott.
Trump might be on stronger ground to complain about Broward’s handling of the process. Brenda Snipes, the Broward County supervisor of elections, over the years has faced lawsuits that have challenged her management record and how votes were counted. Snipes was appointed in 2003 by Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and has been reelected four times.
“The Florida Election should be called in favor of Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis in that large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged. An honest vote count is no longer possible-ballots massively infected. Must go with Election Night!”
— Tweet, Nov. 12
Trump oddly suggests only the votes that were counted on Election Day should count, even though that’s not actually feasible in most cases, especially in a state as large as Florida in which more than 8 million ballots were cast. News organizations may “call” a race, but results are only official when election officials complete the count and certify the numbers.
Florida law requires a machine recount when the margin is less than 0.5 percentage points. Scott’s lead over Nelson has shrunk to 0.14 percentage points, so it is likely there will also be a hand recount. (The threshold for a hand count is 0.25 points.) In the governor’s race, former congressman Ron DeSantis is ahead of Democratic Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum by 0.41 percentage points, which also triggered a machine recount.
Under Florida law, vote-by-mail ballots must be received by local supervisors of elections by 7 p.m. on Election Day, though overseas and military ballots are accepted after as long as 10 days after Election Day (in this case Nov. 16), as long as they are postmarked by Election Day. Trump’s tweet on Veterans Day appeared to suggest military votes should not be counted.
Democrats, citing mail-delivery delays, have filed suit calling for all vote-by-mail ballots that were postmarked before Election Day to be counted. (Miami-Dade County’s election department received 266 ballots that had been found in the Opa-locka mail sorting facility, but for now, they won’t be counted.)
Trump claimed, without evidence, “many ballots are missing or forged.” The White House did not respond to a request for an explanation. The “missing” ballots appear to be a reference to social media chatter about a box labeled “provisional ballots;” it was just pens and other supplies. The “forged” ballots appear to be a reference to a lawsuit filed by Nelson demanding that the state count all provisional and mail-in ballots deemed to have a signature mismatch; the campaign says inexperienced workers could be rejecting legitimate ballots.
No criminal activity has been uncovered, and a judge denied a request by the Scott campaign to impound voting machines in Broward County. He also warned against inflaming passions on both sides.
“I am urging because of the highly public nature of this case to ramp down the rhetoric,” said Broward Circuit Judge Jack Tuter.
"If someone in this lawsuit or someone in this county has evidence of voter fraud or irregularities at the supervisor’s office, they should report it to their local law enforcement officer,” Tuter said. “If the lawyers are aware of it, they should swear out an affidavit, but everything the lawyers are saying out there in front of the elections office is being beamed all over the country. We need to be careful of what we say. Words mean things these days.”
Update: After this fact check was published, White House spokesman Hogan Gidley sent The Fact Checker this statement; “Broward County has decades worth of well-documented problems conducting fair elections in a timely manner. Late votes, improper ballots, and failed promises have become the norm there. This is a troubling situation that has now repeated itself and unnecessarily caused confusion in what should be a sacred and orderly American election process.”
“The prospect of Presidential Harassment by the Dems is causing the Stock Market big headaches!”
— Tweet, Nov. 12
About one hour after the U.S. stock markets opened, the Dow Jones industrial average was down about 240 points. Trump was quick to blame “the prospect of presidential harassment.”
Since Democrats won control of the House of Representatives in the midterms, lawmakers have not been shy about saying they intend to carefully study the president’s actions, as well as whether he has abused his power or sought to enrich his businesses. Under the previous Republican-led Congress, Trump rarely, if ever, faced such scrutiny.
But Trump is wrong to blame the Sunday talk-show chatter for the stock-market swoon. In fact, it’s pretty silly to blame any single event for stock-market jitters. The technology sector fell after a key Apple supplier, Lumentum Holdings, cut its earnings and revenue outlook after it said a major customer — believed to be Apple — significantly reduced its orders for laser diodes. The announcement sent Lumentum down 33 percent, and many other tech stocks fell as well.
This is just the latest warning sign in the once-sizzling tech sector. The tech-heavy Nasdaq 100 is down more than 10 percent since the beginning of October.
Meanwhile, investors were also reacting to the news that Saudi Arabia said it would cut its oil production. (Perhaps recognizing this connection, Trump later tweeted that the Saudis should not do that.) Another thing hanging over the market: Trump’s trade war with China.
The Dow Jones closed the day down more than 600 points, or 2.3 percent. Trump regularly took credit for stock-market highs when the market was going up, telling audiences that he made their retirement plans richer. Now that stocks have hit a rough patch, it’s much too early to blame Democrats.
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