Listen to any politician over the course of his career, and you’ll eventually become familiar with certain components of his patter. Not just the regular phrasing of the stump speech, but the same anecdotes or jokes that crop up regularly in conversation or addresses.
Listen regularly to President Trump, though, and you enter a whole new dimension.
Trump reuses talking points, falsehoods and anecdotes so regularly that The Washington Post’s fact-checkers had to invent a new category just to accommodate untrue things he says repeatedly. The Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale, who often live-tweets the president’s campaign rallies, is able to casually indicate in real-time that a particular utterance of Trump’s is the 24th time that the president’s made a false claim.
Dale also notes some of Trump’s regular tics. There are “sir” stories, tales Trump shares in which an unnamed (and probably apocryphal) individual addresses Trump as “sir” before the president does something.
And then there’s the policeman with the overperforming 401(k). Dale first pointed him out last September.
On Tuesday, Dale revisited the idea: The police officer, now described as a “big, strong guy," told Trump that his 401(k) retirement plan had increased by 47 percent under Trump’s watch.
By our count, using Dale’s tallies and the index of Trump’s comments and speeches at Factba.se, Trump has mentioned growth in 401(k)s 16 times since December 2017. On most of those occasions, Trump specifically referred to a comment being made by a police officer. On others, Trump used the same general structure for the story without identifying the police officer specifically.
For example, this was the way Trump first told the story on Dec. 8, 2017, during a speech in Florida. He noted that he had been in New York the prior weekend, for a fundraiser in Manhattan on Dec. 2.
“I love to say hello to our folks in uniform whether it’s the military, whether it’s law enforcement. And we had people backstage and I always want to take my time. And a man comes up. He was a police officer in New York City. The first time anyone said this to me. He said, Mr. President, I want to thank you. My family thinks I’m a financial genius. My 401(k) is up 39 percent in nine months.”
That’s the rap: My 401(k) is up, and so my family thinks I’m a financial genius. Here’s the version Trump offered in late March at a rally in Michigan.
“Since our election when the stock market is up almost 50 percent. You are looking like geniuses with your 401(k)s, right? Your wife or your husband is saying darling, you’re such a great investor. How are we doing? We are up 67 percent. Oh, darling, you’re so brilliant.”
Notice how using the general, unnamed individual he can inflate the number significantly. Suddenly, anonymous people are seeing value that’s 67 percent higher. Wow!
But ... is that realistic?
We took the 16 mentions Trump has made and graphed them, using the highest value mentioned by Trump as part of his patter. The result looks like this.
Now, we’ll note that the most recent mention of the police officer had an important asterisk.
“This big, strong guy comes to me,” Trump said earlier this month in Florida, “I was in New York, and he said, ‘Sir, thank you. My 401(k)...,’ and that was a year ago. This happens all the time. He said his 401(k)'s up 47 percent.”
Remember: The week after Trump allegedly met the guy, the percentage was 39 percent. As Dale notes, it’s now up to 47 percent. And to highlight that this figure is still lower than reality, Trump pointedly mentions that the figure (which he has quietly inflated) is at least a year old. That’s why the most recent number looks out of line with Trump’s rhetorical inflation.
Even if the police officer’s 401(k) had increased by 47 percent since inauguration as of May 8, he would be doing much better than both the Dow Jones industrial average and the S&P 500.
Sometimes Trump likes to use Election Day in 2016 as the benchmark for his economic numbers because the markets performed well during the presidential transition period. If we use that metric, the anecdotal officer’s 401(k) was matching up nicely with the Dow until early 2018. By the end of last year — at about the point that Trump stopped attributing the 401(k) comment to the police officer, Trump’s mentions of 401(k)s were far outpacing the staggering markets.
During a speech in Tennessee in January 2018, Trump embellished further.
“He said, ‘My 401(k) is up 39 percent, it’s so good, my wife thinks I’m’ — don’t forget, this is, like, in nine months when I met him — said, ‘My wife thinks I’m an investment genius. Thank you, sir. Thank you,’ ” Trump said. (Note the “sir.”)
“And I said, ‘You know what? Based on the stocks, 39 is not that good. You’re not doing that well,’ ” Trump continued. “ ‘Don’t tell your wife that.’ ”
As of writing, the Dow is up 29.5 percent since Trump’s inauguration, and the S&P is up 25.4 percent. (During the equivalent period in President Barack Obama’s first term, the indexes were up 57 and 66 percent, respectively.) So if your 401(k) is up 39 percent, sir, you might be an investment genius.