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Fact-checking President Trump’s interview with The Washington Post

(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

In his interview with The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker and Josh Dawsey on Nov. 27, President Trump made a number of false or misleading claims, including many that we have fact-checked previously. Here’s a quick roundup, with statements listed in the order he made them. Some comments made by the president during the interview are unclear and may be subject to additional fact checks.

“We’re not having a wall because of the Democrats. We need Democrat votes to have a wall.”

Trump needs 60 votes in the Senate, meaning he needs all Republicans and at least nine Democrats, to clear the way for a filibuster-proof bill that funds the border wall.

The Secure and Succeed Act would do just that. Sponsored by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and backed by the White House, the bill would provide $25 billion for the wall, among other measures.

But the president's claim that Democrats are blocking the wall makes sense only if all 51 Republicans are on board. They're not. Grassley's bill failed 39 to 60 in the Senate in February. It got 36 of 51 GOP votes and three Democratic votes, far short of passage.

Three other immigration proposals, backed by broader mixes of Republicans and Democrats, each got more than 50 votes.

“We almost had a deal [with Democrats], and then the judge ruled shockingly in favor of Obama’s signature, when even Obama said what he’s doing is not legal. Essentially, he said, it’s not going to hold up. But when the judge ruled, all of a sudden it was like, that’s the end of that deal. But we were very close to having a deal — $25 billion for a wall and various other things on the border. And DACA.”

Trump claims he almost struck a deal with Democrats to extend the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and fund the border wall with $25 billion. But the deal fell through, he says, because a judge ruled to uphold DACA in the middle of negotiations.

These comments are confusing and wrong in several ways.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) met with Trump in early September 2017 and then announced they had a tentative deal that extended DACA but did not fund the border wall, although they did agree to include some form of border security measures.

Trump took a beating from his right-wing supporters after that announcement, and days later tweeted that there was no deal with Pelosi and Schumer. No judge had ruled to uphold DACA in the interim.

Meanwhile, Obama never said his executive order on DACA was illegal. His administration argued in court that the order was “a lawful exercise of the enforcement discretion that Congress delegated to the executive branch in the Immigration and Nationality Act, which charges the executive with ‘the administration and enforcement’ of the country’s immigration laws,” as the ACLU put it.

“You look at our air and our water and it’s right now at a record clean.”

This is false. The 1970 Clean Air Act, and its amendments in 1990, has certainly made a difference in keeping the air in the United States cleaner than in countries such as China and India. But “record clean”? Nope. U.S. carbon emissions have declined, but they are only the lowest since 1996, according to the World Bank. Emissions were lower before then. In fact, it was nearly two times lower in 1960.

“If you go back and if you look at articles, they talked about global freezing, they talked about at some point the planets could have freeze to death; then it’s going to die of heat exhaustion.”

Trump appears to be referring to some speculative journalism a half century ago. There had been a period of cold winters in the early 1970s, and so some reporters put two and two together — and came up with five.

The Washington Post, for instance, published a 1970 article titled, “Colder Winters Held Dawn of New Ice Age.” It warned: “Get a good grip on your long johns, cold weather haters–the worst may be yet to come.”

The Trump administration released on Nov. 23 a long-awaited report outlining that climate change impacts "are intensifying across the country." (Video: Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)

Time magazine in 1974 titled an article “Another Ice Age?” and said “climatological Cassandras are becoming increasingly apprehensive, for the weather aberrations they are studying may be the harbinger of another ice age.” And Newsweek, in 1975, ran an article titled “The Cooling World,” which said: “Meteorologists disagree about the cause and extent of the cooling trend. … But they are almost unanimous in the view that the trend will reduce agricultural productivity for the rest of the century.”

(There is even a fake Time Magazine cover floating around the Internet, which purports to be a 1977 cover displaying a lone penguin underneath this headline: “How to Survive the Coming Ice Age: 51 things you can do to make a difference.” But this is actually a photoshopped version of a Time cover from 2007 titled, “The Global Warming Survival Guide.”)

In any case, the science was still unsettled at the time, which allowed reporters to pick and choose the angle to emphasize. In 2008, several scientists decided to go back and review the peer-reviewed literature at the time. Despite the media coverage highlighted by Trump, it turns out that peer-reviewed articles on global cooling were in a distinct minority compared with those concerned with global warming. “The survey identified only seven articles indicating cooling compared to 42 indicating warming. Those seven cooling articles garnered just 12% of the citations,” the researchers reported.

In fact, in 2006, Newsweek admitted it had been “spectacularly wrong” in publishing its article. Yet the bad journalism of the 1970s is still cited today by climate skeptics such as Trump, even though the science affirming the impact of human activity on climate change now is widely accepted.

“The fire in California, where I was, if you looked at the floor, the floor of the fire they have trees that were fallen, they did no forest management, no forest maintenance, and you can light — you can take a match like this and light a tree trunk when that thing is laying there for more than 14 or 15 months. And it’s a massive problem in California. ... You go to other places where they have denser trees — it’s more dense, where the trees are more flammable — they don’t have forest fires like this, because they maintain. And it was very interesting, I was watching the firemen and they’re raking brush — you know the tumbleweed and brush and all this stuff that’s growing underneath. It’s on fire and they’re raking it working so hard, and they’re raking all this stuff. If that was raked in the beginning, there’d be nothing to catch on fire. It’s very interesting to see. A lot of the trees, they took tremendous burn at the bottom, but they didn’t catch on fire. The bottom is all burned but they didn’t catch on fire because they sucked the water, they’re wet. You need forest management, and they don’t have it.”

This is not what Smokey Bear meant when he said, “Only you can prevent forest fires."

Experts say the most recent wildfires besetting California were not sparked by forest management problems such as an overpopulation of trees or a lack of raking. (Trump previously said the president of Finland once told him they avoid forest fires by raking the ground, but the Finnish president denied saying this.)

“The ones in Southern California are burning in chaparral, so it’s not a forest management issue at all,” LeRoy Westerling, a climate and fire researcher at the University of California at Merced, told us in a previous fact-check. “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.”

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. Because of “the rising costs of fighting fires,” the U.S. Forest Service has been forced to “regularly raid its $600 million budget for forest management,” according to the Sacramento Bee.

As wildfires grow in frequency and intensity in California, President Trump is launching false attacks and threats at the state. (Video: Jenny Starrs, Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

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. Trump is not convinced that global warming is an issue, despite an overwhelming scientific consensus and reports from his own administration.

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 [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.”

“We lose $800 billion a year with trade.”

The United States does not “lose” money on trade deficits. The trade deficit just means Americans are buying more products from other countries than foreigners are buying from the United States, not that they are somehow stealing U.S. money. Trade deficits are also affected by macroeconomic factors, such as the relative strength of currencies, economic growth rates, and savings and investment rates. By passing a large deficit-financed tax cut, Trump has made it harder to reduce trade deficits, if that were even important.

Trump’s figure is also inflated. The U.S. had a $552 billion trade deficit in 2017, when goods and services are counted. But Trump only counts trade in goods, thus inflating the total. The trade deficit has widened in 2018, according to the Commerce Department.

Virtually every mainstream economist would argue that it is far more important to focus on overall trade and investment between nations. If overall trade increases between nations, people in each country generally gain, no matter the size of the trade deficit.

The president has harsh words about trade imbalances, but his numbers don't always add up. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

“We have $52-a-barrel oil right now and I called them about three months ago, before this whole thing happened with Khashoggi, and I let him have it about oil. We were up to $82 — probably two and a half months ago — we were up to $82 a barrel and it was going up to $100 and that would’ve been like a massive tax increase and I didn’t want that. And I called them and they let the oil start flowing and we’re at $52.”

Trump may have called the Saudi king to complain about oil prices. But the plunge from about $80 started in mid-October after reports of slowing demand, exacerbated by Trump’s unexpected grant of sanctions waivers to some of Iran’s biggest customers. The Saudi government has indicated it will join other OPEC producers in cutting production in order to boost prices, as the current level strains its budget. OPEC in July decided to increase production and the Saudis were slow to follow. But now the oil cartel plans to cut production in an effort to get the price of oil up again. (Note: Trump appeared to be mixing up the price for Brent crude, produced outside the United States, with West Texas Intermediate, produced in the United States. Brent has been trading about $10 a barrel higher than WTI, so the price drop has been $20, not $30.)

“We have an ally that’s investing billions and billions of dollars in our country. They could very easily invest $110 billion, $450 billion overall over a period of time, fairly short period of time. $110 billion in military. Russia and China would love to have those orders and they’ll get them if we don’t.”

We have repeatedly explained that these numbers are a fantasy. We had earlier documented that the commercial agreements announced after Trump’s 2017 trip to the kingdom were mostly smoke and mirrors, with many of the purported deals aimed at creating jobs in Saudi Arabia, not the United States. At the time, Trump claimed they were worth $350 billion, but without explanation the figure has grown to $450 billion.

As for the $110 billion in military sales, according to a confidential 2017 document of all of the military sales agreements reviewed by The Fact Checker, most of the items on Trump’s $110 billion list did not have delivery dates or were scheduled for 2022 or beyond. There appeared to be few, if any, signed contracts. Rather, many of the announcements were MOIs — memorandums of intent. There were six specific items, adding up to $28 billion, but all had been previously notified to Congress by the Obama administration.

Moreover, the Saudis have been clear that they expect to impose a 50 percent localization rule. In other words, only half of the $110 billion, if the deals were actually inked, would be spent in the United States.

“Germany shouldn’t like that aggression. You know they’re paying 1 percent, and they’re supposed to be paying much more than 1 percent. … They’re absolutely not doing enough. Germany? Absolutely not. Many of those countries are not doing enough toward NATO. They should be spending much more money.”

There are two types of funding for NATO: direct funding and indirect funding. Direct funding, for military-related operations, maintenance and headquarters activity, is based on gross national income — the total domestic and foreign output claimed by residents of a country — and adjusted regularly. With the largest economy in NATO, the United States pays the largest share — about 22 percent. Germany is second, with about 15 percent. A significant portion of the U.S. share is operating the Airborne Early Warning and Control System (AWACS) fleet operations, according to the Congressional Research Service.

President Trump (still) consistently misstates his impact on NATO’s budget and how that budget works. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

The U.S. share of the actual military budget is negotiated each year but is largely based on the cost-sharing formula and amounts to less than $500 million a year, according to Defense Department documents.

But Trump is really talking about indirect funding. Since 2006, each NATO member has had a guideline of spending at least 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on defense spending. At a 2014 summit, responding to Russian aggression in Ukraine, NATO members pledged to meet that guideline by 2024.

In 2017, only five of the 28 members exceed the guideline — with the United States leading the way at 3.5 percent. The other members that exceed the guideline are Greece, Estonia, Britain and Latvia, but the perceived threat from Russia has prompted other nations to bolster their defense spending.

It’s important to remember that the United States is a world power with global responsibilities, including in Asia. Iceland, which spends the smallest percent of its GDP on defense, does not even have a standing army.

Germany spends 1.24 percent of its GDP on defense, but the somewhat arbitrary measure penalizes countries with strong economies. Greece manages to meet its 2 percent commitment mainly because its economy is weak.

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“We lose $800 billion a year with trade.”
in an interview with The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 27, 2018
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“You look at our air and our water and it’s right now at a record clean.”
in an interview with The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 27, 2018