Trump talked about unemployment pre-pandemic, veterans health care and filling judgeships. Those are all important issues, and they can be especially animating on the right. But very little of what he brought up he could take credit for himself, and it hardly backed up the claim he led with: “There has never been an administration or president who has done more than I’ve done in a period of three and a half years.”
Here’s a closer look at how the president defended his record, which is perhaps one of the most important parts of a president’s reelection campaign.
He led with conspiracy theories about Democrats
Trump framed how much he has done through the context of Democrats being out to get him and make his presidency fail.
It’s a common theme on his Twitter feed, but on the stage of a presidential debate where he had an open floor to talk about his accomplishments, it risked coming across as an excuse for how little he had to say:
There has never been an administration or president who has done more than I’ve done in a period of three and a half years, and that’s despite the impeachment hoax, and you saw what happened today with Hillary Clinton where it was a whole, big con job. But despite going through all of these things where I had to fight both flanks and behind me and above, there has never been an administration that’s done what I’ve done.
Regarding the “you saw what happened today with Hillary Clinton” line: Hours before the debate, Trump’s intelligence chief released unverified information essentially alleging that when Clinton was running for president, she approved a plan to make it look like Russia and Trump were hacking Democratic emails. The information is so sketchy that it was already rejected by senators as not factual, and releasing it Tuesday or at all raised alarms in the intelligence community about how the Trump administration wields intelligence for political purposes. Sure enough, it made it into Trump’s debate performance.
On his pre-covid record
Trump is at a disadvantage talking about his record right now because there is a historic and deadly pandemic, economic crisis and racial strife all converging at the end of his first term. Rather than try to defend his handling of the pandemic that polls show is dragging him down, he talked about his accomplishments before 2020, albeit in vague terms for a question he had to know was coming.
The greatest before covid came in, the greatest economy in history, lowest unemployment numbers. Everything was good. Everything was going. And by the way there was unity going to happen. People were calling me. For the first time in years they were calling, and they were saying it’s time maybe. And then what happened? We got hit, but now we’re building it back up again.
Even with the pandemic shuttering businesses, the economy is Trump’s political strength right now, with polls showing voters tend to approve of the job he’s doing and trust him slightly more than Democrat Joe Biden to handle it. But Trump inherited an economy on the upswing from the Obama administration that didn’t jump any higher than the good years under President Barack Obama.
Interestingly, Trump didn’t mention his one major legislative accomplishment that was directed at boosting the economy, the 2017 tax overhaul law, perhaps because it proved unpopular enough to cost Republicans the majority in the House of Representatives the next year.
It’s also not clear what Trump meant by “there was unity going to happen.” It was an odd line for a president known for sowing division. His own former defense secretary, Jim Mattis, lashed out at Trump this summer for being “the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us.”
Then he talked about the military
The rebuilding of the military, including Space Force and all of the other things, a fixing of the VA, which was a mess under him; 308,000 people died because they didn’t have proper health care. It was a mess. And we now got a 91 percent approval rating at the VA. Our vets — we take care of our vets, but we’ve rebuilt our military.
Government-run veterans’ health care has indeed struggled over the years, but fact-checkers say Trump greatly inflates his numbers on how many lives it has cost. In 2018, he signed into law a bill expanding veterans’ access to health care — and then he fought Congress on funding it to make it a reality.
And he ended on a base-pleasing accomplishment of confirming judges
The job that we’ve done — and I’ll tell you something. Some people say maybe the most important. By the end of the first term I’ll have approximately 300 federal judges and court of appeals judges, 300, and hopefully three great Supreme Court judges — justices. That is a record the likes of which very few people — and you know one of the reasons I’ll have so many judges? Because President Obama and him left me 128 judges to fill. When you leave office, you don’t leave any judges. That’s like you just don’t do that. They left 128 openings, and if I were a member of his party, because they have a little different philosophy, I’d say if you left us 128 openings you can’t be a good president, you can’t be a good vice president. But I want thank you because it gives us almost — it’ll probably be above that number. By the end of this term — 300 judges. It’s a record.
Trump overstates the numbers of judges he and Republicans have approved (it’s 218 so far). But filling the courts with conservative judges, capped off by two and probably three vacancies filled at the Supreme Court, is indeed a legacy-defining issue for Trump.
But it’s also something he was able to accomplish because Republicans blocked Obama’s judges, and filling them now that the GOP is in power doesn’t require bipartisan approval, like legislation does. By contrast, Trump has been unable to bring Democrats and Republicans together to make deals on issues like coronavirus relief.
There’s a political risk for Trump that his successful march to lean the judiciary to the right is motivating the left to focus more on it. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found voters trust Biden more to fill this Supreme Court vacancy and found evidence Biden voters are more motivated to vote because of it.