But not all falsehoods are equal, and there are significant differences between the two men in how they mangle the facts. Here’s the tale of the tape in how Trump and Biden measure up before their first presidential debate.
Biden, with nearly a half century in politics, is an old-fashioned politician. He is prone to exaggeration and not often precise about policy issues, in contrast to more disciplined politicians like former president Barack Obama or former Florida governor Jeb Bush. Biden especially gets in trouble because of his loquacious nature, though he has tried to rein in his stemwinders during this presidential run. He often indicates he is knowledgeable about complex policy issues.
Many of Biden’s factual errors are dismissed as “gaffes,” innocent mess-ups. In a recent interview with CNN, Jill Biden, his wife, sought to dismiss the issue: “After Donald Trump, you cannot even say the word gaffe.”
But it’s more than just gaffes. Here are some prime examples of Biden falsehoods.
Biden does not always get the numbers right.
In one famous example as vice president, Biden in 2011 touted an Obama-era jobs bill by claiming the number of rapes in Flint, Mich., had, depending on the hour, doubled, tripled and even quadrupled because the number of police had been reduced. There was no evidence to support any of these statistics, earning him Four Pinocchios and an editorial in the Delaware County Daily Times titled “Biden plays fast and loose with the facts.”
More recently, while running for president, Biden has falsely claimed that if Trump had handled the coronavirus pandemic properly, everyone who had died in the United States would be alive (there is no data to support this), that the trade deficit with China has never been higher (it has dropped in the last two years) and that Trump has never condemned white supremacists (Trump has, even as he mitigated it with his “both sides” comment). Biden also routinely inflates numbers, such as saying Trump admitted to Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward that covid-19 was seven times more contagious than the flu, when in fact Trump had said five times.
Biden’s talking points sometimes get mangled together. After an attack on the Medicare-for-all plan promoted by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) during the primaries, Biden’s staff admitted:
- He meant to say the plan would double the federal budget, except for interest on the debt, not that it was twice the federal budget.
- He meant to say a tax on employers was like a deductible from your paycheck, not a deductible for your income tax.
- He meant to say the employer tax was 7.5 percent, not “5 percent and 4 percent.”
During another debate, Biden falsely said more than 90 percent of the American people believe we have to get assault weapons off the street. Support for banning the sale of assault weapons usually ranges from 50 to 60 percent in recent surveys. Biden mixed up the statistics for polling on expanding background checks, which does get support in the 90 percent range.
Biden even attacked Trump once for fingerprinting food stamp recipients — when he meant to refer to former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg.
Few politicians like to admit error. Biden handles it by offering a revisionist history that obscures his original policy position.
In trying to explain his vote in favor of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Biden has claimed that President George W. Bush misled him — which a Bush spokesman denies — and that he opposed the war from “the moment it started.” Actually, for more than a year, Biden repeatedly defended his vote to authorize an invasion as “just” and “right.” After The Fact Checker pointed that out, Biden said he “misspoke.”
Similarly, Biden’s explanation of his advice to Obama on whether to authorize the mission to kill Osama bin Laden has evolved over time. He initially said he urged Obama to not go and take more time to gather intelligence, but now he says he privately urged Obama to go. But that has not been confirmed by Obama.
Biden’s involvement in the civil rights movement, in his retelling, also has grown more expansive over time. Campaigning this year, Biden suggested he walked out of restaurants and picketed movie theaters. As far as we could determine, Biden participated in just one walkout at one restaurant. He also picketed a segregated movie theater.
Since the emergence of the novel coronavirus, Biden has often oversold what he wrote in a late January opinion article for USA Today, claiming he said it was a pandemic. The USA Today piece is more of an attack on Trump and a recollection of Obama administration steps taken against the 2014 Ebola outbreak than a detailed plan for action against a possible pandemic. But at the same time, Biden indicated he took the threat seriously, even if he did not explicitly say a pandemic was on the way.
Biden sometimes tells stories that appear to have little basis in reality.
Earlier this year, Biden told voters at least three times that he was arrested in South Africa while trying to visit Nelson Mandela in Soweto. Mandela, later president of South Africa, was imprisoned on Robben Island at the time, making the whole story an impossibility. Eventually, the campaign said Biden was separated from the Congressional Black Caucus members he was traveling with at an airport, but that did not make much sense, either. (Another White member of Congress said it did not happen.)
Last year, Biden told a moving tale of visiting Afghanistan and pinning a medal on a regretful soldier that jumbled elements of at least three actual events into one story. “In the space of three minutes, Biden got the time period, the location, the heroic act, the type of medal, the military branch and the rank of the recipient wrong, as well as his own role in the ceremony,” The Washington Post reported.
Nasty personal attacks
Biden will fault what he views as policy mistakes, but generally he does not make nasty personal attacks based on falsehoods.
The president comes from real estate background where what he once called “truthful hyperbole” is regarded as the norm. While in office, he has told dozens of falsehoods and misleading statements almost every day — in news conferences, prepared speeches, interviews and remarks to the media.
Biden makes mistakes and tells tall tales, but he often drops them or withdraws them if his error is highlighted in the media. Trump, by contrast, doubles down and repeats the false claim over and over. Indeed, when challenged with irrefutable evidence that his statement is wrong, Trump will grasp at the flimsiest pieces of evidence to insist he is right, even if the evidence contradicts or undermines what he had originally claimed.
We can only scratch the surface of Trump’s propensity for falsehoods in this article — The Fact Checker published a best-selling book on them — but here are some highlights. One of Trump’s biggest problems is that his knowledge of policy details is thin, so he often falls back on the same old spin when the questions try to probe deeper.
Trump exaggerates about just about everything.
He falsely claims (hundreds of times) that before the pandemic, he built the greatest economy in U.S. history; even at its best under Trump, it was not as good as the U.S. economy in the 1950s, 1960s or 1980s, and it was already beginning to stumble when the pandemic arrived. He says he passed the biggest tax cut in U.S. history, but it ranks eighth. He says he scored massive job-creating deals with Saudi Arabia, but the numbers are wildly inflated (and the jobs are mostly in Saudi Arabia).
Trump routinely cites statistics on immigration enforcement but flips the script depending whether border apprehensions are going up (“so many people arrested”) or going down (“so few people are crossing”).
Trump has played similar games with economic statistics. In Trump’s version of history, he “inherited a mess” with “millions of people out there” seeking jobs, whereupon he “accomplished an economic turnaround of historical proportions.” But it was Obama who inherited an economic crisis, with the country shedding 800,000 jobs a month when he took office in 2009. Eight years later, Trump took over when the economy was adding about 200,000 jobs a month — as it continued to do through his first three years.
Even after nearly four years as president, Trump appears to have little idea of how NATO is funded and operates. He repeatedly claimed other members of the alliance “owed” money to the United States and they were delinquent in their payments. Then he claimed credit for the money “pouring in” as a result of his jawboning, even though much of the increase in those countries’ spending on their own defense had been set under guidelines arranged during the Obama administration. Trump has touted new NATO funding numbers that are fanciful — and has given himself all of the credit for the increase.
Trump remains relentlessly on message, repeating his false claims over and over, so he does not often mangle his talking points as much as Biden. But Trump does often speak in discursive, meandering monologues, making his meaning unclear. He is also often flippant. That sometimes gives him plausible deniability or allows him to claim that he was only joking.
Trump never admits he made a mistake, and he often spins fairy tales that have little basis in reality.
For instance, he repeatedly claims he got his start in business with only a $1 million loan from his father, which he then turned into a $10 billion empire. Not only is his reported wealth dubious, but also, after examining more than 100,000 confidential documents, the New York Times concluded that Fred Trump’s “small loan” was $60.7 million, or $140 million in 2018 dollars, much of which was never repaid. In all, the Times found that Trump received the equivalent of at least $413 million in today’s dollars from his father’s real estate empire.
Trump’s biggest domestic defeat of his presidency was his failed drive to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The effort that collapsed in the Senate would have weakened a key tenet of Obamacare: protections for people with preexisting health conditions. After that defeat, Trump’s rhetoric shifted: He falsely asserted more than 100 times that Republicans had protected people with preexisting conditions. In 2020, he even tweeted, “I was the person who saved Pre-Existing Conditions in your Healthcare.” He recently signed an executive order that he claimed would protect preexisting conditions. But he has never offered a plan that would do so and repeatedly claimed (falsely) he effectively eliminated Obamacare.
Similarly, one of Trump’s most famous campaign promises was that Mexico would pay for the border barrier he is building along the southern border. Not only did Trump redirect billions of dollars from military projects over the objections of Congress, but he keeps asserting that Mexico will pay for the wall in some mysterious fashion (such as through a trade deal or possibly adding toll booths at the border).
In battling the coronavirus pandemic, Trump has repeatedly tried to erase his original lackadaisical response with a story of how he took bold action against China with a travel ban opposed by all of his advisers. But Trump’s advisers pressed him to impose the ban, while he was initially skeptical, and the less-than-total ban came as many flights already were canceled and other countries were taking similar actions. Then Trump made the World Health Organization a scapegoat even though he had initially praised WHO’s efforts to stem the disease.
Trump frequently promotes conspiracy theories and asserts claims that have no basis in reality.
Some of Trump’s stories are simply puzzling. Trump on four separate occasions has falsely asserted that Obama had such a bad relationship with the Philippines that the country’s leaders would not let him land his presidential jet during an official visit, leaving him circling above the airport. Obama actually made two visits where he was warmly received.
Trump repeatedly said U.S. Steel was building six to eight new steel plants, but that wasn’t true. He said that as president, Obama gave citizenship to 2,500 Iranians during the nuclear-deal negotiations. It didn’t happen. Over and over, Trump claimed the Uzbekistan-born man who in 2017 was accused of killing eight people with a pickup truck in New York had brought two dozen relatives to the United States through chain migration. The actual number is zero.
But Trump’s tall tales also can be more nefarious. Trump has concocted conspiracy theories about Obama allegedly spying on his campaign, which he sometimes labels “Obamagate.” It started with Trump’s false claim in 2017 that Obama put a wiretap on him. Then that merged with a report that an FBI informant in Europe, a professor named Stefan Halper, met with at least three people working on the Trump campaign in Europe. A former campaign aide, Carter Page, was subject to an FBI warrant. Now Trump is focused on a January 2017 meeting Obama held in the Oval Office. Somehow, without much explanation, Trump has turned this meeting into a high crime that he considers to be treason.
Similarly, as the election has neared and Trump remains behind in the polls, the president has promoted bogus claims about the dangers of voting by mail. He also, without evidence, has claimed Biden must be on performance-enhancing drugs.
Nasty personal attacks
If Trump believes someone has crossed him, he will respond with a tsunami of untruths. His behavior is highly unusual for a politician, let alone a president. Without even a bit of humor, Trump lobs insults filled with falsehoods, changes history to denigrate opponents and fabricates tall tales about his foes out of whole cloth.
The examples are too numerous to mention and are probably familiar to readers. Trump falsely accused Rep. Ilhan Omar (D) of Minnesota of supporting the terrorist group behind the 9/11 attacks. He smeared Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) as “Danang Richard,” even though Blumenthal never described himself as a war hero in Vietnam or claimed to have fought in Danang. Trump invented a story about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) “dancing in the streets” of Chinatown as the coronavirus emerged, saying she was responsible for “many deaths.” (Not only did Pelosi take the coronavirus more seriously than Trump, but San Francisco has had relatively few deaths.)
The Bottom Line
Both Biden and Trump have provided lots of fodder for fact-checkers. But Biden’s falsehoods tend to occur once — hence they are termed “gaffes” — or are withdrawn or dropped after criticism. Some of his errors are strange, but they generally do not have a nasty edge, and he does not engage in ad hominem attacks. Biden also exaggerates in broad strokes on complex policies to make himself appear smarter. Depending on your perspective, Biden is in the middleweight or welterweight class.
Trump, however, is the heavyweight champion of falsehoods. Trump repeats false statistics on everything, almost as if to will them to be facts. He frequently seems to inhabit a world of his own creation, spreading conspiracy theories and assuming the worst of his foes.
When the fact-checking is completed after tonight’s debate, it likely will not be scored as an even match.
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