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Fact-checking Trump’s announcement of a national emergency

President Trump declared a national emergency to secure funding for a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border. (Video: Joy Sharon Yi/The Washington Post, Photo: Oliver Contreras/The Washington Post)

Where to begin with President Trump’s rambling news conference to announce he was invoking a national emergency to build a border wall? It was chock-full of false and misleading claims, many of which we’ve previously highlighted, either in our database of Trump claims or our list of Bottomless Pinocchios. Here’s a summary of 14 of the most noteworthy claims, starting with immigration ones first.

“So I’m going to be signing a national emergency. And it’s been signed many times before. It’s been signed by other presidents. From 1977 or so, it gave the presidents the power. There’s rarely been a problem. They sign it — nobody cares. I guess they weren’t very exciting. But nobody cares. They sign it for far less important things in some cases — in many cases.”

We will leave it to the courts to sort out whether Trump’s action is constitutional or not, but Trump oversimplifies the rationale behind the National Emergencies Act of 1976. Previously presidents acted with authority inherent in the Constitution, but Congress intended to formalize the process, including terminating standing emergencies. The law was intended to clarify presidential power and give Congress the option to thwart a presidential declaration, not to give “the power” to presidents. Originally, that required simply passage of a resolution by both houses of Congress, but a Supreme Court ruling in 1983 forced Congress to amend the law to require a presidential signature or overturning a presidential veto.

The Brennan Center at New York University has documented dozens of times that presidents have issued an emergency declaration under this law, often related to blocking property or transactions with certain foreign governments or individuals. The 1976 law has no definition of an emergency, and legal experts say no one appears to have previously challenged whether a presidential determination of an emergency is valid.

“The numbers that come out of Homeland Security, [Secretary] Kirstjen [Nielsen], for the cost that we spend and the money that we lose because of illegal immigration, billions and billions of dollars a month. Billions and billions of dollars, and it’s unnecessary.”

When Trump was challenged by a reporter on his facts and figures, he insisted he got them from the Department of Homeland Security. But he actually got them from his TV set. On Jan. 27, he tweeted that the cost of illegal immigration so far this year was $18,959,495,168. We traced that number to a report on the right-leaning One America News Network. The figure appears to be based on an estimate from an outside group, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), though the OAN figure was considerably higher.

FAIR has been a source for Trump before, but its estimates have been fiercely disputed. The Cato Institute, which favors immigration, said the study had serious methodological errors that, once considered, reduced the fiscal cost to $3.3 billion to $15.6 billion before accounting for economic activity generated by immigrants in the country illegally.

In any case, the president is not relying on a DHS estimate.

“And a big majority of the big drugs — the big drug loads don’t go through ports of entry. They can’t go through ports of entry. You can’t take big loads because you have people — we have some very capable people, the Border Patrol, law enforcement — looking.”

In demanding a wall on the southern border, Trump has asserted that it would stop the flow of drugs. But the Drug Enforcement Administration says that most illicit drugs enter the United States through legal ports of entry.

Traffickers conceal the drugs in hidden compartments within passenger cars or hide them alongside legal cargo in tractor-trailers and drive the illicit substances right into the United States. Mexican criminal groups control the flow of heroin across the border, the majority of which “is through [privately owned vehicles] entering the United States at legal ports of entry, followed by tractor-trailers, where the heroin is co-mingled with legal goods,” the DEA said in its 2018 National Drug Threat Assessment. (Later in the news conference, Trump dismissed this as “a lie.”)

But the numbers don’t lie: The arm of the DHS that works at ports of entry seized 4,813 pounds of heroin in the first 11 months of fiscal 2018, compared with the 532 pounds seized by Border Patrol. Seven times as much cocaine was seized at ports of entry than between them, as well. Marijuana is the only drug that is seized more often between ports of entry.

Meanwhile, fentanyl, a deadly synthetic opioid, can be easily ordered online, even directly from China.

“We’re right now in construction with wall in some of the most important areas. And we have renovated a tremendous amount of wall, making it just as new. … In the meantime, I built a lot of wall. I have a lot of money, and I built a lot of wall. But it would have been nice to have gotten done.”

Trump keeps trying to spin that the wall he has long sought is being built. But that’s simply not true. The appropriations bill he signed early in 2018 included $1.6 billion for barriers, but legislative language was specific: None of the funds could be used for Trump’s border-wall prototypes. Instead the money was restricted to bollard fencing, and it was generally used for replacement fencing. The bill that Trump signed Friday has even more restrictions, listing areas along the border where such bollard fencing cannot be used and requiring mutual agreement with the locally elected officials in five cities and localities before any construction could start. Trump’s border-wall prototypes are still banned under the law.

“We have removed thousands of MS-13 gang monsters, thousands. They're out of this country. We take them out by the thousands. And they are monsters.”

Within six months of becoming president, Trump — with little evidence — began claiming that his administration had deported “thousands” of members of the violent MS-13 gang.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement has since reported removing 1,332 “known or suspected” members of MS-13 in fiscal 2018 and 1,073 in fiscal 2017, which included part of President Barack Obama’s last term. ICE has not yet released data for MS-13 removals in fiscal 2019, which began on Oct. 1, 2018.

In other words, at most 2,405 known or suspected MS-13 members have been deported over the past two fiscal years, according to currently available data, but not all of that was under Trump.

Although MS-13 is now run out of El Salvador, the gang originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s. In 2017, the Justice Department estimated there were about 10,000 total active members in the United States and 30,000 around the world.

"In El Paso, they have close to 2,000 murders right on the other side of the wall. And they had 23 murders. It’s a lot of murders. But it’s not close to 2,000 murders, right on the other side of the wall, in Mexico.”

Even though Juarez and El Paso sit roughly a 20-minute drive from each other across the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, the two cities have vastly different homicide rates. El Paso had 23 slayings in 2018, according to the El Paso Police Department. Juarez did not have “nearly 2,000” slayings in 2018 but 1,032, according to the Mexican government.

The president regularly claims this difference can be attributed to the physical barrier between the cities. But El Paso had the third-lowest violent-crime rate among 35 U.S. cities with a population over 500,000 in 2005, 2006 and 2007 — before construction of a 57-mile-long fence started in mid-2008.

“Take a look at Israel. They're building another wall. Their wall is 99.9 percent effective, they tell me — 99.9 percent.”

Only one-tenth (33 miles) of the Israeli barrier with Palestinian territories is an eight-meter (25-foot) concrete wall. The other 90 percent is a two-meter-high (six-foot) electronic fence. As for 99.9 percent, that would not apply to the barrier along the West Bank. The New York Times in 2016 reported on a vast smuggling industry that easily evades the Israeli security fence and wall that divides Israeli and Palestinian areas.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pointed to “99 percent” success in reducing immigration from Africa with a barrier erected along the southern border with Egypt. “While there is a clear correlation between the construction of the wall and the decrease in immigration, experts claim that the border wall has only partially contributed to the decrease, and that other measures enacted by the Israeli government have also been of immense importance,” a report in Harvard International Review said. “Israel has also made it less desirable for immigrants that make it across the wall to stay and work.”

“And, by the way, the USMCA from Mexico — that's United States, Mexico, Canada — that's where the money's coming from, not directly, but indirectly, for the wall.”

This is a Four Pinocchio claim. During his campaign, Trump more than 200 times promised Mexico would pay for the wall, which the administration said would cost at least $18 billion. He also signed a “Contract with the American Voter” that pledged he would obtain payment for the “full cost” of the wall with Mexico. Now he says the minor reworking of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) will earn enough money to pay for the wall. That betrays a misunderstanding of economics. Countries do not “lose” money on trade deficits, so there is no money to earn; the size of a trade deficit or surplus can be determined by other factors besides trade. Congress must still appropriate the money, and the new trade agreement has not been ratified.

“But they should have pushed it faster. They should have pushed it harder. And they didn't, they didn't. If they would have, it would have been a little bit better.”

Trump blames congressional leaders for his own mistake. His fiscal 2019 budget called for $1.6 billion for barrier construction. Congress agreed to that amount, and then lawmakers were shocked when Trump rejected it, saying it was far less than he wanted. That led to the lengthy government shutdown.

“You know what happened on the West Side Highway. That young wise guy drove over and killed eight people and horribly injured — nobody talks about that — horribly, like loss of legs and arms. Going 60 miles an hour, he made a right turn into a park on the West Side Highway along the Hudson River in New York. He had many people brought in because he was in the United States. It's called chain migration.”

Trump frequently says terrorism suspect Sayfullo Saipov brought 22 relatives into the United States through “chain migration” or the diversity visa lottery. But no agency has confirmed this figure, and experts say it is implausible because Saipov had only a green card, meaning he could bring in only his wife (already in the United States) or his minor children (already U.S. citizens). Trump has now said this false claim 19 times, meaning the next mention will earn it a spot on our list of Bottomless Pinocchios.

“And then you have the lottery. It's a horror show. Because when countries put people into the lottery, they're not putting you in. They're putting some very bad people in the lottery. It's common sense.”

Trump grossly misrepresents of the diversity visa program, saying other countries deliberately choose bad people to apply. Individuals apply for the visa system and must have at least a high school diploma or work in specific industries to be eligible for the program. As the term “lottery” implies, applicants are selected via a randomized computer drawing. The selected applicants undergo a background check before entering the country, and some applicants undergo an additional in-depth review if they are considered a security risk.

“President Obama put on more debt on this country than every president in the history of our country combined. So when I took over, we had one man that put on more debt than every other president combined. Combine them all.”

This is a misleading claim we have debunked before. Trump is talking about raw dollars, but every president inherits a debt from the previous one, making it virtually certain that the pile of debt is going to grow. A lot of that new debt is on automatic pilot — from programs such as Medicare and Social Security.

There are more informative ways to measure a president’s impact on the national debt. One way is percentage increase, and under that metric, Obama is in fifth place: Franklin D. Roosevelt (1,048 percent), Woodrow Wilson (729 percent), Ronald Reagan (186 percent), George W. Bush (101 percent) and Obama (74 percent).

One alternative method looks at the dollar amount of the debt increase divided by the dollar amount of gross domestic product at the end of each presidential term. Under that metric, Obama would have the worst record of recent presidents but would still trail Roosevelt and Wilson among presidents in the past 100 years.

“Their criminal list, a drug dealer gets a thing called the death penalty. Our criminal list, a drug dealer gets a thing called: How about a fine? And when I asked President Xi, I said, ‘Do you have a drug problem?’ ‘No, no, no.’ I said: ‘You have 1.4 billion people. What do you mean you have no drug problem?’ ‘No, we don’t have a drug problem.’ I said, ‘Why?’ 'Death penalty. We give death penalty to people that sell drugs. End of problem.”

A 2016 Brookings Institution report lays out that “people who smuggle, sell, transport, or manufacture heroin or methamphetamine in an amount greater than 50 grams can be sentenced to 15 years in prison, life imprisonment, or death” in China.

Drug trafficking is one of the few criminal offenses that qualifies for the death penalty, but the idea that China has “no drug problem” because of the tough penalties is wrong. The number of drug addicts officially registered with the Chinese government rose to about 2.5 million in 2013 from just under a million in 2001. First-time offenders are generally sent to drug treatment centers, while repeat offenders are often sent to “education through labor” camps.

“I don’t want to speak for [Obama]. But I believe he would have gone to war with North Korea. I think he was ready to go to war. In fact, he told me he was so close to starting a big war with North Korea.”

Former Obama administration aides deny this is the case. The meeting between Obama and President-elect Trump was without staffers, but Ben Rhodes, a top Obama national security aide, told The Fact Checker that Obama “talked to him about the seriousness of the threat posed by North Korea. And frankly I think you would find that there was no reporting or suggestion in 2016 that we were somehow on the brink of war with North Korea.”

Bob Woodward, in his book “Fear: Trump in the White House,” reported that after North Korea conducted a nuclear test in 2016, Obama posed the question to aides of whether the North Korean nuclear threat could be eliminated in a surgical military strike. But after a review, Obama concluded that only a ground invasion would eliminate the threat and that such an action was “unthinkable.”

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