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Trump’s ABC News town hall: Four Pinocchios, over and over again

President Trump faced tough questions from undecided voters during a wide-ranging town hall on Sept. 15. Here are some highlights. (Video: The Washington Post)

At the ABC News town hall Tuesday night, President Trump was challenged by ordinary voters in ways that he rarely experiences in the safe spaces of Fox News, where he regularly answers questions. But he still retreated to false or misleading talking points that he offers in his usual venues. Here’s a quick tour through 24 claims made at the Philadelphia town hall, in the order in which he answered questions.

“We’re very close to having the vaccine. If you want to know the truth, the previous administration would have taken perhaps years to have a vaccine because of the FDA and all the approvals, and we’re within weeks of getting it. You know, could be three weeks, four weeks, but we think we have it.”

Most experts believe a scientifically credible vaccine for the novel coronavirus will not be available until at least early 2021, and vaccine manufacturers insist they will not be rushed for political considerations. In any case, it will take months to make a safe vaccine available to most Americans. Trump has no basis to claim the Obama administration would have been slower, given how poorly the Trump administration ramped up coronavirus testing.

“If you look at what we’ve done compared to other countries, with the excess mortality, the excess mortality rate, we’ve done very, very well.”

Trump can cherry-pick whatever numbers he wants, but as moderator George Stephanopoulos pointed out, the United States ranks poorly compared to its peers on most measures of the coronavirus.

“We were short on ventilators because the cupboards were bare when we took it over.”

This is a Four-Pinocchio claim. When the new coronavirus emerged, the Strategic National Stockpile held 16,660 working ventilators, which turned out to be enough to deal with the initial surge of the pandemic, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. (Almost 11,000 were distributed to states.) HHS said that the number available in March 2020 was essentially the same number as of January 2017, when President Barack Obama left office.

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“We have 20 percent of the cases [in the world] because of the fact that we do much more testing. If we wouldn’t do testing, you wouldn’t have cases. You would have very few cases.”

This is a nonsensical statement. The number of coronavirus cases rose in the United States because the disease has been spreading for months, abetted in part by a lax and inconsistent response from U.S. political leaders. As of mid-2020, the total number of new weekly cases had been rising, and the rate of positive test results also was increasing.

Without testing, the scope of the pandemic would be unclear and hospitals and doctors would not be able to prepare. Ending testing would not end the spread of the disease. “When the virus is under control, testing doesn’t uncover more cases. It’s a tool for keeping the epidemic at bay,” said former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb.

“I read where other people said do it. No people that I saw said do it. And I know they said security advisers and others — I put a ban on when it wasn’t at all popular. Joe Biden said I was xenophobic because I put the ban on, and I thought that was a very unfair — and by the way he’s totally taken that back. But I’m not sure he knows what it means.”

The president frequently claims he took bold action that was criticized. News reports say he was reluctant to impose the ban, citing his relationship with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, but the action was urged by his top health advisers. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told reporters on Feb. 7: “The travel restrictions that we put in place in consultation with the president were very measured and incremental. These were the uniform recommendations of the career public health officials here at HHS.”

Any criticism was scattered and relatively muted. Trump points to a comment by former vice president Joe Biden — “This is no time for Donald Trump’s record of hysteria and xenophobia … and fearmongering to lead the way instead of science” — but Biden says that did not refer to the travel restrictions.

“No, no. I didn’t say one way or the other. I’m not saying one way or the other.”

Trump falsely denied he played down the coronavirus. He did so for at least six weeks before the rising caseload made the problem impossible to ignore.

“So I didn’t say anything bad about President Xi initially, because nobody knew much about the disease. Nobody knew the seniors are susceptible. They thought people would be susceptible — but not just — you know the seniors are really a very, very endangered group of people, especially if they have problems with hearts or diabetes or any of that.”

Taped interviews recorded by Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward show that Trump knew how dangerous the coronavirus was by Feb. 7.

“Well, I didn’t downplay it. I actually — in many ways I up-played it in terms of action. My action was very strong. Yes, because what I did was, with China — I put a ban on with Europe, I put a ban on. And we would have lost thousands of more people, had I not put the ban on.”

On Jan. 31, the president announced that effective Feb. 2, non-U.S. citizens were barred from traveling from China, but there were 11 exceptions. Meanwhile, U.S. citizens and permanent residents could still travel from China but were subject to screening and a possible 14-day quarantine. Trump’s action did not take place in a vacuum. Many airlines were canceling flights, and by our count, at least 38 countries took similar action before or at the same time the U.S. restrictions were put in place.

Meanwhile, Trump also touts his restrictions on travel from Europe as effective. But a Washington Post examination found that his abrupt decision led to one final viral infusion before the country was forced to shut down. “The lapses surrounding the spread from Europe stand alongside other breakdowns — in developing diagnostic tests, securing protective gear and imposing social distancing guidelines — as reasons the United States became so overwhelmed,” The Post reported. “The travel mayhem was triggered by many of the same problems that plagued the U.S. response to the pandemic from the outset: Early warnings were missed or ignored. Coordination was chaotic or nonexistent. Key agencies fumbled their assignments. Trump’s errant statements undermined his administration’s plans and endangered the public.”

Trump announced his restrictions on parts of Europe on March 11, more than a month after restrictions on non-U.S. citizens coming from China. In point of fact, Trump announced a bar on the entry of foreign nationals from the Schengen Area, the European Union’s border-free travel zone, a 26-nation region that does not include Britain, Ireland or 21 other European countries, including Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Ukraine and Russia. He later extended the restrictions to the United Kingdom and Ireland.

“The fact is, we created the greatest economy in the history of the world.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic shuttered businesses and sent unemployment soaring, the president could certainly brag about the state of the economy in his first three years as president. But he ran into trouble when he made a play for the history books to say it was the best economy in U.S. history. By just about any important measure, the economy under Trump did not do as well as it did under Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson or Bill Clinton. The gross domestic product grew at an annual rate of 2.3 percent in 2019, slipping from 2.9 percent in 2018 and 2.4 percent in 2017. But in 1997, 1998 and 1999, GDP grew 4.5 percent, 4.5 percent and 4.7 percent, respectively. Yet even that period paled in comparison against the 1950s and 1960s. Growth between 1962 and 1966 ranged from 4.4 percent to 6.6 percent. In postwar 1950 and 1951, it was 8.7 percent and 8 percent, respectively. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate reached a low of 3.5 percent under Trump, but it dipped as low as 2.5 percent in 1953. (After the virus tanked the economy, Trump jacked up his claim even more, falsely saying it had been the greatest economy in the history of the world.)

“Nancy Pelosi was standing in the streets of Chinatown in San Francisco late — a month — more than a month after that — saying this thing’s totally exaggerated.”

Another Four-Pinocchio claim. Under fire for reacting too slowly to the coronavirus pandemic, Trump has tried to turn the tables and repeatedly argue House Speaker Pelosi (D-Calif.) was slower than he was, repeatedly citing a visit Pelosi made to San Francisco’s Chinatown on Feb. 24. He has accused her of causing many deaths, when there have been relatively few in San Francisco. He says she urged street fairs and parades, but that’s not true. She advocated patronage of Chinese businesses. In terms of suggesting he took the crisis seriously and she did not, that’s a stretch. Contrary to Trump’s claim, she never suggested the virus did not exist or the problem was exaggerated. In Chinatown, she urged people to take precautions and to be vigilant. A day later, she called for a broader, more forceful response. The president, meanwhile, continued with happy talk for at least two weeks afterward.

“Rudy Giuliani did a fantastic job. The city was safe, and then all of a sudden we have a mayor who starts cutting the police force and crime is up 100 percent, 150 percent.”

Major crimes are down under New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D). There has been a jump in murders in 2020, but the annual number of murders under de Blasio has been about half as high as it was in Giuliani’s best year, according to

“So I just saw a poll where African Americans in this country, Black communities, are 81 percent in favor of having more police.”

Actually, Trump is confused. A Gallup poll conducted from June 23 to July 6 of more than 36,000 U.S. adults found that 20 percent of Black Americans would like more police, while 61 percent said they would like police to spend the same amount of time in their community. That does, however, add up to 81 percent.

“We are not going to hurt anything having to do with preexisting conditions. We’re not going to hurt preexisting conditions.”

Four Pinocchios again! Trump regularly, but falsely, claims that he and the Republicans would keep provisions in the Affordable Care Act that protect people with preexisting health conditions. But the House and Senate GOP plans backed by Trump likely would have resulted in higher costs for people with preexisting conditions in some states, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The Trump administration also refused to defend the Affordable Care Act against a lawsuit that would end protection for preexisting conditions, putting the entire law at risk, and later asked the Supreme Court to strike down the entire act, actively seeking to end the guarantee for patients with preexisting conditions. The Trump administration, meanwhile, has issued new rules that promote the use of low-quality, short-term plans that were prohibited under the ACA. These plans typically don’t have the same protections for people with existing health conditions, allowing insurance companies to deny coverage or charge higher prices.

“I got rid of the individual mandate, which is the worst part of Obamacare. … It’d pertain to a lot of people, where they were going literally bust because they didn’t want to have health insurance, and they were paying for it anyway, and it was no good.”

Going bust? Not really. According to a Jan. 9, 2017, letter from IRS Commissioner John Koskinen to Congress, only 6.5 million taxpayers paid the “shared responsibility” payments in 2015. That’s actually a decrease from 2014, when 8 million taxpayers made a payment. The payments in 2015 totaled about $3 billion, with the average payment about $470.

“Stocks are owned by everybody. … They — if people held onto their stocks — and remember this, because I notice you say wealthy, sure wealthy — but you have people that aren’t wealthy but have done well because of the stock market.”

Maybe everyone Trump knows owns stocks. But only 55 percent of Americans have any investments in the stock market, according to a Gallup poll, which is a decline from before the Great Recession.

“If Joe Biden ever got in, I think you’d have a depression the likes of which we have never seen in this country. If you look at his policies, where he wants to raise everybody’s taxes.”

Biden’s tax plan does not raise taxes on people making less than $400,000. Every analysis shows the tax increase would fall on the richest Americans.

“It’s easy, because I never made those statements. They were never made by me. They said I stood over the grave of soldiers killed many years ago and I said they were suckers. I never made that — do you know we had 26 people as of today come out to say it never happened — and many people were there.”

We examined closely the list of people denying the story in the Atlantic that Trump called war dead “losers” and “suckers,” and there is less than meets the eye to their statements.

“As far as John McCain, I was never a fan of John McCain. I never thought he treated our vets well, he didn’t do the job.”

Trump routinely takes false credit for passing the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, which was shepherded through Congress by senator McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2014.

“I rebuilt our military. Our military, when I came into this great office, our military was depleted. It was in the worst shape it was in probably ever. It was depleted. The planes were old and broken, the ships, everything. You see what I’ve done. I’ve rebuilt — $2.5 trillion and you think that was easy getting that money from Democrats?”

Trump often falsely claims he has “rebuilt” the U.S. military. The military budget had declined in recent years, as a result of decreases in funding for Overseas Contingency Operations as both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan came to a close, not because it has been so gravely depleted. Trump frequently says his military budgets are the biggest in history, but adjusted for inflation, his administration’s budgets lag some years during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The biggest defense budget was in 2010, and in inflation-adjusted dollars it is nearly 10 percent larger than Trump’s 2020 budget.

As for the $2.5 trillion, Trump is adding up three fiscal years of military funding, but the money is not all spent, only a portion of it is destined for new equipment, and the equipment is not all built. The current fiscal year began only a few months before Trump began to make this statement. The actual amount spent on military equipment since he became president is much less, about $444 billion in constant dollars, or about 20 percent of the total. The rest was spent on things like personnel, operations and maintenance, and research and development. Trump’s spending on military equipment is not particularly new or unusual.

“Mattis was a highly overrated general, didn’t do a good job, didn’t do good on ISIS. I took over 100 percent of the ISIS caliphate.”

Jim Mattis is a highly respected general who resigned as defense secretary at the end of 2018 in frustration with Trump, about three months before the ISIS caliphate was ended. The job was largely complete.

Meanwhile, Obama set up virtually all the structure that did the key fighting against the Islamic State under Trump, and more fighters trained and munitions dropped under Obama than under Trump. Under Obama, all Iraqi cities (with exception of the western half of Mosul) held by ISIS — such as eastern Mosul, Fallujah, Ramadi, Tikrit — were retaken by end of his term, as was much of northeastern strip of Syria along Turkish border. The basic plan of attack in 2017 was also developed under Obama, although Trump sped up the tempo by changing the rules of engagement.

“We’ve spent $8 trillion and we’ve lost thousands of lives but really millions of lives because I view both sides.”

Four Pinocchios yet again. Trump started making a version of this claim shortly after taking office, first claiming $6 trillion but then quickly elevating it to $7 trillion and now $8 trillion. Trump acts as if the money has been spent, but he is referring to a study that included estimates of future obligations through 2056 for veterans’ care. The study combines data for both President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq (2003) and the war in Afghanistan (2001), which is in Central/South Asia not the Middle East, as well as homeland security spending. The cost of the combined wars will probably surpass $7 trillion by 2056, when interest on the debt is considered, almost four decades from now.

“It [invasion of Iraq] was the worst mistake, the most costly mistake in the history of our country going into the Middle East.”

It was a mistake Trump supported. We searched high and low — as did other reporters — and there is no evidence Trump was an opponent of the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, let alone a vocal one. In fact, he offered lukewarm support. When Howard Stern asked if he supported invading Iraq, Trump replied, “Yeah, I guess so. You know, I wish the first time it was done correctly.” In another interview on Fox News, two months before the invasion, he said Bush had to make a decision: “Either you attack or you don’t attack.” Shortly after the invasion, he again told Fox News: “It looks like a tremendous success from a military standpoint.”

Not until August 2004, in an interview with Esquire, did Trump publicly express opposition to the war. By then — 17 months after the invasion — many Americans had turned against the war, making Trump’s position not particularly unique. Four Pinocchios yet again.

“Unfortunately, this [in Minneapolis] went on for a week or a week and a half before he allowed us to bring in the National Guard. When we brought in the National Guard, everything stopped, the crime was gone meaning the whole thing. But by that time a big portion of the city was burned down.”

Trump falsely suggests he had something to do with the decision to send the National Guard into Minneapolis amid violence and protests of the killing of George Floyd in police custody. Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, had already directed hundreds of guard members to assemble. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey officially requested troops on May 28. Then Walz — not Trump — activated the entire 15,000 member Minnesota National Guard. Trump just watched the scene unfold on television, and called Walz, offering to send in military.

“In Seattle, we let them know we’re coming in. They took over a big chunk of the city, 20 percent of the city. We said we’re coming in. As soon as we said that, the police department went in and these other people were exhausted. But had we not said we’re going in — we were ready to go in. We were going in the following morning.”

Protesters took over roughly a six-block area in Seattle — hardly a “big chunk” or 20 percent.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan (D) flatly denied to The Washington Post’s PlumLine that any conversation like this with Trump — or anyone around him — ever took place. “He never contacted me or my office to warn us,” Durkan said, adding that no one from the White House and no one connected to Trump had told them any such thing. “We had no conversations whatsoever with the White House about anything related to the protests, Capitol Hill, or anything along these lines,” Durkan said, though conversations related to the coronavirus had taken place at various junctures. “It just never happened,” Durkan said. “I don’t know what world he’s living in.” The mayor had signed an executive order on June 30 to formally close the area and on July 1 police moved in to clear it.

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