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Trump’s most popular YouTube ad is a stew of manipulated video

The Trump campaign’s most watched YouTube video used ten video clips in misleading ways — isolating quotes and splicing together clips to mask key context. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)
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“With Joe Biden, China is in charge.”

— Tagline of the Trump campaign’s most popular video, released Aug. 19, 2020

President Trump’s YouTube channel is a force of nature. There are more than 900 videos, with the top five all earning more than 12 million views. Joe Biden’s YouTube channel has far fewer videos — and viewers. His most popular video has only 3 million views.

The tone of the videos is much different, too. Biden’s most popular videos are generally positive; Trump’s are apocalyptic.

The president’s most popular video at the moment, with more than 21.5 million views, is a jumbled stew of allegations about Biden and China. It mixes images of closed factories, quotes from Biden and misleading claims about Biden’s son Hunter and his involvement with a Chinese investment fund.

Trump is aggressively attacking Biden on China in part because the president is vulnerable for his lackadaisical approach to the coronavirus pandemic. For weeks in the early stages of the crisis, Trump repeated assurances that China had the virus under control — at a time when he was most concerned about keeping intact a trade deal with Beijing. (Former national security adviser John Bolton has alleged that Trump pressed Chinese President Xi Jinping to buy enough products to ensure his reelection.)

So this ad tries to turn the tables, claiming that Biden is really in the pocket of the Chinese. But it makes its case with an astonishing collection of misleading, out-of-context clips — essentially a grand-slam-hat-trick of manipulated video.

The Facts

It may seem difficult to remember now, but for years, U.S. policy toward China was to help manage its rise and have it become — in the words of Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick under George W. Bush — “a responsible stakeholder” in the international system. Zoellick established a “strategic dialogue” between senior officials in the two countries that continued into the Obama administration. Eventually it became a “strategic and economic dialogue,” led by the secretary of state and treasury secretary but also including the vice president.

Whether that was a good thing — or whether U.S. policy should have been more confrontational with China — is beyond the scope of this fact check. But the record of those meetings does provide the Trump campaign with an array of Biden quotes on China from which to choose. In 2011, for instance, Biden published an opinion article, titled “China’s rise isn’t our demise,” that reflects U.S. policy at the time. “I remain convinced that a successful China can make our country more prosperous, not less,” Biden wrote.

Still, the Obama administration tried to hedge its bets by forming the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free-trade agreement with 11 other nations that was designed to be a geopolitical instrument that would halt China’s rise and weaken its diplomatic clout. The TPP had many critics — including eventually Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic nominee — and Trump pulled out of it to pursue a unilateral deal with China. He has had just limited success, however, achieving only a first-stage deal that fell short of his original goals.

With that background, let’s quickly spin through the misleading video, with sections in the ad highlighted in bold. The video above also provides the missing context from the clips.

“After the steel mills fell, it just all crumbled. I’m third generation. I’ve worked a steel mill for a year and a half. And now the steel mill ain’t even there.”

The ad starts with a voice, allegedly of a steelworker, lamenting the decline of the steel industry in the United States. The screen reads “60,000 factories closed,” intercut with scenes of Biden clinking glasses with Chinese officials. (We’ve previously given Two Pinocchios to the 60,000-factories claim because there is no estimate of how many closures can be attributed to China.) A series of Biden quotes quickly follows.

“We want to see China rise.”

This is a partial 2015 quote from a luncheon at the State Department during one of the strategic dialogues.

The full quote: “Let me be clear: We do not fear China’s rise. We want to see China rise, to continue to rise in a responsible way that will benefit you most, China, because you have an important role to play. A rising China can be a significant asset for the region and the world, and selfishly, for the United States.”

“China is going to eat our lunch. Come on, man. I mean, you know they’re not bad folks, folks.”

This is a 2019 quote, with a huge section clipped in the middle:

The full quote: “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man. They can’t even figure out how to deal with the fact that they have this great division between the China Sea and the mountains in the east, I mean in the west. They can’t figure out how they are going to deal with the corruption that exists within the system. I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what, they’re not competition for us.”

“I believed then, and I’m even more convinced now, that a rising China is an incredibly positive development.”

This is from a 2011 luncheon at the State Department honoring Chinese President Hu Jintao. In a toast, Biden recalled the historic visit in 1979 by Deng Xiaoping, the first visit to the United States by China’s top leader.

The full quote: “Even back then there was debate about whether a rising China was in the interest in the United States and the world. I believed then, and I’m even more convinced now, that a rising China is an incredibly positive development for not only China, but the United States and the rest of the world. I admit my view is born out of my overwhelming confidence in the capability of the American people and confidence that a prosperous China benefits not only Chinese citizens, but other nations as well. The lone concern I had then, and remains my concern now, is that instability in this relationship could arise only from mutual misunderstanding as to our respective countries’ intentions and our domestic needs. That’s why I’m convinced, Mr. President, that face-to-face bilateral meetings like this and the ones you’ve had last night and earlier today and will have again tonight are so important.”

“China has made remarkable, remarkable strides.”

This is also from the 2015 luncheon during the strategic dialogue at the State Department.

The full quote: “We continue to have serious concerns about some of China’s actions, as they do ours, in each — in such areas for us as cyberspace, maritime security, economic policy, human rights — that are preventing our relationship from reaching its full potential. But the commitment was, we would work very hard to work through it to see the Chinese perspective, and for them to see ours. And the fact of the matter is that, as the secretary of state knows, I never presume to tell another leader what is in his or her interest. They know their interests better than we do. And President Xi knows the interests of his country better than we. But as President Xi knows, I’ve never been reluctant to say what the United States’ interest is. And as a powerful, excuse me, as a peaceful and prosperous Asia-Pacific region that’s free from intimidation or coercion, we hope China and the United States can continue to work to keep it that way. China has made remarkable, remarkable strides in the past 20 years, lifting a half a billion people out of poverty.”

“ABC News investigation this morning into Joe Biden’s son Hunter and questions about money he made from foreign business dealings while his father was vice president.”

When the ad shifts to Hunter Biden, it makes another tricky maneuver. It runs a series of clips of Joe Biden responding to questions about his son’s business dealings in interviews. But the interviews are asking about Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine — not China. (We previously debunked the claims about Hunter Biden’s business dealings in this fact check.)

So a viewer is misled about both the context of the questions and the reason for Biden’s answers. As part of the deception, the ad even flashes headlines — “Joe Biden will stand up for China … but Joe won’t stand up for us” — as Biden answers a question about the money his son earned as a corporate board member in Ukraine.

“What they said is China would prefer Joe Biden. … China and Iran. … China and Iran.”

Then the ad isolates snippets from two interviews with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to make it appear as if she is saying China wants Biden to win.

Actually, in interviews on CNN’s “State of the Union” and “Fox News Sunday” on Aug. 9, Pelosi said U.S. intelligence reports highlighting possible Chinese (and Iranian) interest in the election outcome was misplaced and the real threat to the election was Russian interference. The “they” in her comments refers to U.S. intelligence. Pelosi questions why a vague assessment about China’s interest in the election was given equal billing to active efforts by Russia.

“They try to blanket it with ‘the Chinese, they said, prefer Biden’ — we don’t know that, but that’s what they’re saying — but they’re not really getting involved in the presidential election,” Pelosi said on Fox. “American people need to know what the Russians are doing in this case, and the American people believe that they should decide who the next president is, not Vladimir Putin.”

On CNN, Pelosi said: “Russia is actively, 24/7, interfering in our election. They did so in 2016, and they are doing so now. And they [U.S. intelligence] say that to a certain extent, but they need to tell the American people more.”

Since Pelosi’s interviews, a whistleblower at the Department of Homeland Security has alleged the agency was ordered by the White House to prioritize intelligence about possible Chinese interference over reporting on Russian meddling in the election. Conveniently, that information now turns up in a campaign ad.

“China is a great nation, and we should hope for the continued expansion.”

This is a snippet from a 2013 commencement address at the University of Pennsylvania that is missing significant context.

Here’s the full quote: “I love to hear people tell me how, to use the vernacular, ‘China is going to eat our lunch.’ China is a great nation, and we should hope for the continued expansion. But ladies and gentlemen, their problems are immense, and they lack much of what we have. We have the best universities in the world. We have a legal system that’s open and fair. We have the most agile venture capital system in the world. We lead the world in innovation and technology, all for a simple, basic reason. Steve Jobs, speaking at Stanford, was asked by a young man, ‘How can I be more like you? How I can become like you?’ And Jobs famously answered: Think different. You cannot think different in a nation where you cannot breathe free. You cannot think different in a nation where you aren’t able to challenge orthodoxy, because change only comes from challenging orthodoxy.”

“The growth of China is overwhelmingly in our interest.”

This is a clipped 2016 quote from a visit to Australia.

The full quote: “We’re not trying to contain China. We’re not trying to slow down Chinese growth. The growth in China is overwhelmingly in our interest. But responsible competition is equally as much in our interest.”

The Pinocchio Test

In all, 10 clips are presented in this ad with significant context missing or misleading framing. The Trump campaign could seek to have a serious debate over the right policy toward China, but instead it chooses to manipulate viewers with selective editing. It might earn lots of clicks, but it also earns Four Pinocchios.

Four Pinocchios

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