The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fact-checking the fifth Democratic presidential debate

Here's a roundup of six claims from the fifth Democratic presidential debate of the 2020 campaign. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

The fifth Democratic presidential debate of the 2020 campaign, hosted by The Washington Post and MSNBC, had 10 candidates, lasted more than two hours — and did not have many statements that merited fact-checking. Here are 10 claims that caught our attention. Our practice is not to award Pinocchios in debate roundups.

“The president had to confess in writing, in court, to illegally diverting charitable contributions that were supposed to go to veterans.”

— South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg

This is false.

In a civil complaint filed in June 2018, then-Attorney General Barbara D. Underwood of New York charged that the now-defunct Donald J. Trump Foundation had violated a federal law known as the Johnson Amendment, which bars charities from supporting candidates for office.

Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign “extensively directed and coordinated the Foundation’s activities in connection with a nationally televised charity fundraiser for the Foundation in Des Moines, Iowa on January 28, 2016,” Underwood charged.

The fundraiser was billed as an effort to “raise funds for veterans’ organizations,” but the Trump campaign commandeered nearly $2.8 million in donations and “dictated the manner in which the Foundation would disburse those proceeds, directing the timing, amounts and recipients of the grants.”

The president settled the lawsuit, but did not admit liability. A New York state judge on Nov. 7 noted in a court order that “the Funds did ultimately reach their intended destinations, i.e., charitable organizations supporting veterans.”

As reported, “donations totaling $2.825 million were given to 34 veterans organizations between January 2016 and June 2016,” such as AMVETS and the Green Beret Foundation.

“You’ve got 500,000 people sleeping out on the street.”

— Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

The way Sanders frames this is exaggerated. His number came from a single-night survey done by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to measure the number of homeless people. For a single night in January 2018, the estimate was that 553,000 people are homeless.

But the report also says that two-thirds — nearly 360,000 — were in emergency shelters or transitional housing programs; the other 195,000 were “unsheltered” — i.e., on the street, as Sanders put it. The number has been trending down over the past decade. It was 650,000 in 2007.

I have proposed a two-cent wealth tax. That is a tax for everybody who has more than $50 billion dollars in assets. Your first $50 billion is free and clear, but your 50 billionth and first dollar you’ve got to pitch in two cents. And when you hit a billion dollars, you’ve got to pitch in a few pennies more.”

— Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.)

Warren’s “Ultra-Millionaire Tax” would apply to households with a net worth of $50 million or more, essentially the wealthiest 75,000 households. (She misspoke when she said $50 billion.) They would be charged 2 percent of every dollar of net worth above $50 million, unless they’re billionaires.

Households with $1 billion or more in assets would start paying 3 percent on assets above $1 billion. At least that was in Warren’s first iteration of her tax plans. She said this tax would raise $2.75 trillion over 10 years. But to help fund her plan for universal health care, she recently announced that she would also charge another 3 percent to billionaires, for a total of 6 percent. So that’s six pennies.

“By asking billionaires to pitch in 6 cents on each dollar of net worth above $1 billion, we can raise an additional $1 trillion in revenue,” Warren said in explaining how she would fill the $20.5 trillion hole created by her Medicare-for-all proposal. While 6 percent a year may not seem like much, it would add up to more than 50 percent over 10 years for billionaires.

“Five hundred thousand people go bankrupt because of medically related issues. They come down with cancer, and that’s a reason to go bankrupt?”


Sanders often repeats this talking point, asserting that 500,000 people go bankrupt every year from medical issues. That’s approximately two-thirds of the 750,000 total bankruptcies per year.

For this debate, however, the senator modified the wording of his claim. Sanders previously said 500,000 people a year go bankrupt from medical debt, but now he says “medically related issues.” This formulation more accurately reflects the study he’s quoting.

The claim is based on a study published by the American Journal of Public Health in March. The researchers surveyed debtors and asked about factors that contributed to their bankruptcies. Forty-four percent said either medical bills or loss of work related to illness “very much” contributed; 22 percent said either medical bills or illness “somewhat” contributed. Combining both groups of respondents, the study estimated 530,000 bankruptcies a year.

But the study doesn’t establish that all 530,000 bankruptcies were caused by medical issues. It’s broader because it measures contributions, not causes, to bankruptcy, and includes respondents who said these contributions factored into their bankruptcy either “somewhat” or “very much.”

A different study published in the New England Journal of Medicine looked at the same question of medical bankruptcies and found that the rate was far lower: 30,000 to 50,000 a year. However, this study was limited to non-elderly people in California who were admitted to the hospital for non-birth-related reasons, so it covers only a subset of all people facing medical debt.

The research team Sanders cited once included Warren, who contributed to earlier versions of the study when she was a Harvard University professor. Interestingly, though, Warren doesn’t make the same claim about 500,000 medical bankruptcies a year.

“I have led the way on voting, and I can tell you right now, one solution that would make a huge difference in this state would be allow every kid in the country to register to vote when they turn 18. If we had a system like this and we did something about gerrymandering and we stopped the voting purges and we did something significant about making sure we don’t have money in politics from the outside, Stacey Abrams would be governor of the state right now.”

— Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.)

“It was voter suppression right here in Georgia targeting African Americans that prevented governor Stacey Abrams from being in office right now.”

Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.)

Many Democrats claim Stacey Abrams lost the Georgia governor’s race because of racially motivated voter suppression. Many Republicans claim that there’s no evidence for that assertion and that their candidate won fair and square. In a previous fact check, we talked to experts and took a close look at the data.

Brian Kemp, Abrams’s Republican opponent who is now governor, was basically in charge of running his own election because he was Georgia’s secretary of state at the time and declined to recuse himself.

Kemp oversaw an aggressive effort to purge voters, with nearly 700,000, or 10 percent, removed from the rolls in the year before the election. “For an estimated 107,000 of those people, their removal from the voter rolls was triggered not because they moved or died or went to prison, but rather because they had decided not to vote in prior elections,” according to a report by American Public Media.

But there’s a counterargument, too. Even if every provisional ballot not counted and every rejected absentee ballot had been awarded to Abrams, it would not have overcome Abrams’s 55,000-vote deficit. The 2018 turnout was far greater than any previous midterm, according to FiveThirtyEight, and more African Americans voted in 2018 than in 2016.

Where you land depends on how you view the wide range of pertinent evidence. Klobuchar and Booker suggested their statements were a factual claim, not in dispute, though it’s really more of an opinion.

“With more African Americans under criminal supervision in America than all the slaves since 1850, do not roll up into communities and not talk directly to issues that are going to relate to the liberation of children.”

— Booker

There are several problems with this claim. First, as Booker framed it, it’s simply wrong. The 1850 Census counted 3.6 million slaves. That’s compared with African Americans constituting 2.3 million, or 34 percent, of the total 6.8 million correctional population in 2014.

A Booker spokeswoman sent us a link as evidence to a 2014 PolitiFact fact check about a different claim — that more black men are now in prison than were slaves in 1850. “There were about 1.68 million African American men under state and federal criminal justice supervision in 2013, 807,076 more than the number of African American men who were enslaved in 1850,” the fact check said, rating it “true.”

But that’s not what Booker said.

Moreover, even if the black men comparison is correct in terms of raw numbers, it’s still misleading because the U.S. population has soared since 1850, as our colleagues at Wonkblog noted in 2015. The census that year found that roughly 9 in 10 of the nation’s 3.6 million blacks were enslaved. By contrast, 1 in 11 blacks is under correctional supervision today, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.

“There are only two countries in the world that don’t have paid family leave for new moms: the United States of America and Papua New Guinea. That is the entire list and we need to get off this list as soon as possible.”

— Businessman Andrew Yang

It may seem like a surprising statistic, but Yang is correct, according to a March report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Paid maternity leave is also guaranteed in every country except Papua New Guinea and the United States, the report said. An International Labor Organization report reached the same conclusion. At least one other report also listed Lesotho, Liberia and Swaziland as countries that also do not provide paid family leave.

“When black women are three to four times more likely to die in connection with childbirth in America …”

— Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.)

This is correct, and Harris carefully uses the phrasing “in connection with childbirth,” as not all of the deaths occurred during childbirth. A 2018 report from nine maternal mortality review committees reported that about 700 women in the United States die each year as a result of pregnancy or pregnancy-related complications.

“Non-Hispanic black women experience maternal deaths at a rate three to four times that of non-Hispanic white women, a racial disparity that is mirrored across many maternal and infant outcomes,” the report said. “Nearly 50 percent of all pregnancy-related deaths were caused by hemorrhage, cardiovascular and coronary conditions, cardiomyopathy, or infection. … Preeclampsia and eclampsia, and embolism were leading underlying causes of death among non-Hispanic black women.” The report said that more than 60 percent of the pregnancy-related deaths were preventable.

REP. TULSI GABBARD: I think the most recent example of your inexperience in national security and foreign policy came from your recent careless statement about how you as president would be willing to send our troops to Mexico to fight the cartels. ….

BUTTIGIEG: I know that it’s par for the course in Washington to take remarks out of context, but that is outlandish even by the standards of today’s politics.

GABBARD: Are you saying that you didn’t say that?

BUTTIGIEG: I was talking about U.S.-Mexico cooperation. We’ve been doing security cooperation with Mexico for years, with law enforcement cooperation and a military relationship that could continue to be developed with training relationships for example.

Exchange during the debate

After the two candidates tangled over Buttigieg’s comments, Gabbard said the fact-checkers would sort it out. We looked into it, and Buttigieg has decent grounds to say his remarks were taken out of context.

Here’s how Reason magazine reported his comments:

Asked if he would consider military assistance in Mexico, if the country were to request any, Buttigieg told ABC7 reporter Adrienne Alpert: “If it is in the context of a security partnership, then I would welcome ways to make sure that America is doing what we can to ensure our neighbor to the South is secure."
But Buttigieg also hedged significantly, saying he’d only send troops into conflict if American lives were on the line, if there were no other choice, and if treaty obligations necessitated involvement. More importantly, he’s not suggesting anything like President Donald Trump’s tweet that he’d be happy to send U.S. forces down to Mexico to “wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth.”

Reason summarized: “So the totality of Buttigieg’s comments make it pretty clear that he doesn’t actually want to send troops down to Mexico to help fight drug cartels, but he might be willing to consider some sort of security agreement to provide military assistance.”

The Sacramento Bee reported that the campaign pulled the comment back even further: “His campaign later clarified that Buttigieg would only be open to military use as a ‘last resort’ in response to Mexican cartel violence or an outside threat that endangers the country’s security.”

Nevertheless, as our colleague Nick Miroff noted, even this would be a significant step. “Buttigieg is correct that U.S.-Mexico security cooperation goes back years, and the Drug Enforcement Administration (and other U.S. agencies) have been working with Mexican military to target cartel bosses since [George W. Bush.] But a US troop deployment would be a major escalation,” he tweeted. “The question would only be relevant if Mexico wanted a US troops deployment. And Mexico doesn’t.”

(About our rating scale)

Send us facts to check by filling out this form

Sign up for The Fact Checker weekly newsletter

The Fact Checker is a verified signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network code of principles