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Fact-checking the ‘final arguments’ of Biden and Trump

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With the presidential election race coming to a close Tuesday, here’s a roundup of key claims being made by former vice president Joe Biden and President Trump in their “final argument” speeches.

In rally speeches that can last 90 minutes or more, Trump repeats many of his greatest hits of debunked claims, well-documented in our database of his false or misleading claims and our best-selling book. He pitches the election as “a choice between the American Dream and a socialist nightmare … a choice between a Trump super-recovery and a Biden depression.” We have dealt below with many of his claims under thematic categories.

Biden’s speeches, before much smaller crowds as he maintains coronavirus restrictions, are shorter, with a heavy emphasis on what he decries as Trump’s failures on the pandemic as well as a call for unity. “We choose hope over fear,” Biden says. “We choose unity over division, science over fiction. And yes, we choose truth over lies.” Biden’s speeches have a sprinkling of false or misleading claims, detailed below.

And remember, no matter what your politics, please don’t take your right to vote for granted.

Joe Biden

“The Social Security actuary, the guy who runs it, says the plan like Donald Trump says he wants to institute if he gets reelected, he says will bankrupt Social Security by 2023.”

This is Four-Pinocchios false. Trump has no such plan. But Biden mentions it in almost every campaign stop.

The president gave Biden an opening with confusing remarks after he signed an executive order that would suspend the payment of payroll taxes until the end of the year. Trump suggested several times that he wanted to permanently end payroll taxes, but White House aides insisted that the president was referring only to the executive order, not all payroll taxes. Eventually, Trump made his position clear.

But Trump’s attempt at correcting his previous statements didn’t stop some Democratic senators from playing some mischief. On Aug. 19, four senators wrote to the chief actuary of Social Security asking for “your analysis of hypothetical legislation” that would mandate “zero percent” payroll taxes.

Stephen Goss, the chief actuary, replied that under the scenario made up by Democrats, the Social Security Trust Funds would be depleted by mid-2023. But he pointedly noted that he knew of no such proposed plan. He added that if the legislation allowed for transfers to be made from the general fund — as Trump had said he would seek — “the projected depletion date of the trust fund reserves would be essentially unaffected by the legislation.”

In other words, Goss politely said this was bunk. But letter in hand, Biden has crisscrossed the country making this false claim.

“More than 225,000 people dead, 225,000. The estimates are, if we’d have acted responsibly, there’d be 160,000 fewer dead than there are today, because of covid-19.”

Biden is citing the midpoint estimate of a study published Oct. 21 by Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness. The actual range of the study was a low of 130,000 and a high of 210,000 deaths. The authors came up with this figures by comparing the United States’ policies to those undertaken by six peer countries such as France (which would have resulted in 55,000 “avoidable deaths”) and South Korea (215,000 avoidable deaths). “By failing to implement the type of response strategies employed in the six comparison countries, our analysis shows that the United States may have incurred at least 130,000 avoidable deaths,” the report said.

“Leading doctors in America, including Trump’s own CDC director and Dr. Fauci last week said that if we just wore a mask, between now and the end of the year, we’d save 100,000 lives.”

Biden is incorrectly citing experts. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has advocated for wearing masks — he has said they “are the most important, powerful public health tool we have” against the spread of the novel coronavirus — but he has not offered this 100,000 estimate.

Instead, Biden appears to be confusing Redfield with Tom Frieden, who headed the CDC under President Barack Obama. Frieden touted this estimate in a tweet in September.

We cannot find an example of Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease specialist, using this figure either, though he has also strongly advocated the use of masks, including support for a national mandate.

But the 100,000 figure is real. It comes from a study by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which estimated that if 95 percent of Americans wore masks in public, more than 100,000 lives could be saved in the period between Sept. 22 and the end of February.

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“I’m going to ask the wealthiest Americans and the biggest corporations of the Fortune 500 companies, 91 making a collective billions of dollars, didn’t pay a single solitary penny in federal tax.”

This statistic on 91 companies comes via the left-leaning Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP). In a 2019 report, ITEP concluded that 91 profitable companies in the Fortune 500 did not pay any federal income tax, largely as a result of the 2017 tax law, such as through deductions for investment that Trump promoted in the bill. The group said an additional 56 companies paid effective tax rates between 0 percent and 5 percent on their 2018 income, for an average effective tax rate of 2.2 percent.

It’s worth noting that companies do not fully disclose their tax liability in their filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, so this statistic is the product of research and analysis by the ITEP. But the group has done this for many years, and certainly the comparison of estimated taxes paid before and after the tax bill is relevant.

“Donald Trump inherited a strong economy from Barack and me, just like he inherited everything in his life. Oh, it’s a fact. He squandered that economy like he squandered everything else.”

The economy was doing well at the end of the Obama administration, but it had been a slow recovery from the Great Recession when Obama took office in 2009 — and there were some signs in 2016 the economy was beginning to flag. But contrary to Trump’s rhetoric about an unprecedented economic turnaround, the trends mostly continued on the same path during the first three years of his presidency, perhaps in part goosed by the 2017 tax cut. Before the coronavirus struck, the unemployment rate kept falling, the stock market kept climbing, jobs kept being created — all along roughly the same trend line as under Obama. In fact, nearly 1.5 million more jobs were created in Obama’s last three years as president than under Trump’s first three years.

Yet Biden pushes the rhetoric envelope by suggesting that Trump by himself has squandered the economy. The pandemic has upended economies around the world. One could make a case that the economic swoon was worse in the United States because Trump did not take the pandemic seriously at first and then sought to reopen the economy too quickly. But any president would have faced grave economic challenges.

(Trump did inherit a fortune from his father, and he has had many business flops.)

“If they get their way [and eliminate the Affordable Care Act], 100 million Americans will lose protections for preexisting conditions, cancer, all diseases that are out there.”

It is broadly agreed — such as in this estimate from Avalere, a health consulting group — that about 100 million Americans not on Medicare or Medicaid have preexisting health conditions. What is less clear is how many would be affected if the Affordable Care Act were nullified in a case before the Supreme Court that Trump is backing.

The ACA mostly dealt with the individual insurance market, affecting about 20 million Americans; before passage of the ACA, insurance companies routinely denied coverage or jacked up prices for people with preexisting conditions seeking to buy individual insurance policies. But most Americans get their health insurance through their jobs, and the implications are less clear there. Questions have been raised about whether a Supreme Court ruling overturning the ACA would wipe away protections for people who lost or changed jobs that existed before the ACA, stemming from the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. The protections in the 1996 law were incorporated into the ACA, so it’s unclear what would happen if the lawsuit was successful.

“Donald Trump, when he thinks of climate change, he says hoax. Well, guess what? Speaking of hoaxes, remember what he said about these increasing violent hurricanes and the frequency? He actually said, maybe we should detonate a nuclear bomb over the Atlantic. By the way, the same stable genius who said the biggest problem we had in the Revolutionary War is we didn’t have enough airports.”

In his rallies, Biden pokes fun at Trump for one thing the president allegedly said and by slightly exaggerating another comment he made.

On Aug. 25, 2019, Axios reported that “President Trump has suggested multiple times to senior Homeland Security and national security officials that they explore using nuclear bombs to stop hurricanes from hitting the United States.” The report said he raised it on two occasions. During one hurricane briefing at the White House, Trump said, “I got it. I got it. Why don’t we nuke them?” one individual said. He also allegedly raised this idea with another administration official — a conversation that Axios said was recorded in a 2017 National Security Council memo. Axios noted the memo mentions only that Trump spoke of bombing hurricanes, with no reference to nuclear bombs.

Trump denied he ever said this, calling the report “fake news.” But the reporter, Jonathan Swan, has demonstrated he has good sources in the Trump White House.

Meanwhile, in a July 4, 2019, speech, Trump said: “The Continental Army suffered a bitter winter of Valley Forge, found glory across the waters of the Delaware and seized victory from Cornwallis of Yorktown. Our army manned the air … it rammed the ramparts. It took over the airports. It did everything it had to do. And at Fort McHenry, under the rockets’ red glare, it had nothing but victory. And when dawn came, their star-spangled banner waved defiant.”

There were no airports during either the Revolutionary War or the War of 1812. But Trump did not say the lack of airports was a problem.

“Why should you pay more taxes than Donald Trump pays? And that’s a fact. $750. Remember what he said when that was raised a while ago, how he only pays … He said, ‘Because I’m smart. I know how to game the system.’ ”

Trump, unlike every president since Richard Nixon, has refused to make public his tax filings. But the New York Times obtained his 2017 tax return and found that, when all was said and done, Trump owed just $750 in taxes. Because of business losses, Trump actually reported nearly $13 million in negative income. Then the alternative minimum tax kicked in, and Trump was on the hook for $7,435,857, the Times said. Trump then applied a general business credit for nearly that amount, leaving him with just a $750 tax bill.

Trump, during a 2016 debate with Hillary Clinton, did assert “that makes me smart” after Clinton noted that Trump’s tax returns in 1978 and 1979, released by casino authorities, showed that Trump paid no federal income tax in those years. But he did not say, “I know how to game the system.”

Donald Trump

“You see the number today? 33.1 GDP. The biggest in the history of our country by almost triple, right? Almost triple. Now it’s very much bigger than any GDP we’ve ever had. You have to go back to the 1950s, and then it’s less than half. This is the greatest number, 33.1 percent.”

Trump is using the last major economic report before the election — an estimate of gross domestic product in the third quarter — to claim that the U.S. economy is on the mend after the shutdowns caused by the pandemic.

The GDP rose 7.4 percent in the third quarter, which is indeed a record. It certainly is an improvement over the stunning 9 percent decline in GDP during the second quarter. (Trump’s figure of 33.1 percent is an annualized figure and is pretty misleading in this context. The key fact is that the GDP was 7.4 percent higher than in the second quarter.)

But for the economy to recover all that was lost in the previous quarter, third-quarter GDP needed to have surged by 10 percent.

As it stands, economic output now is 3.5 percent below the last pre-pandemic quarter. Another way to put it: The United States has recovered only about 66 percent of its pre-coronavirus losses. So, despite Trump’s happy talk, the United States is still in a deep recession.

Moreover, Trump failed to reach a deal with Congress to extend government financial assistance, and coronavirus cases have soared. That means the fourth quarter of 2020 is likely to be very rocky.

“Our vaccine will eradicate the virus, and by the way, we have it. But whether we have it or not, it’s rounding the turn. It’s rounding the turn.”

Trump continues to flood the zone with Four-Pinocchio claims about the pandemic. Cases have been spiking across the country since mid-September, but Trump insists we’re “rounding the turn.” No vaccine has been approved, either.

The president continues to assert that U.S. infections are rising “because we do more testing than anybody else,” when experts say the main reason is the spreading disease. Trump says a vaccine will be ready in weeks, while his administration’s experts are much more cautious and say it won’t be ready till next year. Trump often claims falsely that he saved 2.2 million lives (misquoting a study).

In recent days, Trump has even claimed that “doctors get more money if someone dies from covid,” earning a rebuke from the American Medical Association.

“You’re watching the cheaters and all those people that send in the phony ballots. … They want to have the count weeks after November 3.”

Trump is a one-man waterfall of misinformation about voting by mail, constantly earning Four Pinocchios.

He falsely accuses state officials of trying to rig the outcome. He has encouraged people to vote twice, which is illegal. A mountain of evidence shows that mail voting has been almost entirely free of fraud through the decades, but Trump insists it’s a recipe for disaster. For some reason, Trump says “absentee” ballots are safe, but mail ballots are not. (They’re the same thing.) He falsely claims Democrats are trying to end signature verification when counting ballots.

Lately, Trump has claimed falsely that votes are usually counted by the end of Election Day, when the count typically takes days longer. It should be noted that Trump and top administration officials have voted by mail and that his faux warnings are nearly identical to the Russian election disinformation U.S. intelligence officials are seeing this year.

“They want to abolish American energy.”

Under Trump, the United States became a net exporter of energy for the first time since 1953. The president has plenty to boast about on energy matters, but he repeatedly brandishes flat-out falsehoods.

Trump says he “unleashed” American energy through deregulation even though the boom in this sector began under Obama. Trump says the country is now “energy independent” even though it continues to import 9 million barrels of oil a day, 11 percent from Persian Gulf countries. Trump says Biden would ban fracking, even though Biden consistently has said he would allow existing fracking operations to continue and withhold new fracking permits on federal lands. (Most fracking is on private lands.)

“We will always protect patients with preexisting conditions.”

Buyer beware: Trump is trying to weaken health-care protections while claiming to be strengthening them. (This is a Bottomless Pinocchio claim.)

The 2010 Affordable Care Act guarantees that insurers must sell plans to people with preexisting health conditions, from cancer, asthma and heart disease to diabetes, mental illness and other disorders. The law says people in the same geographic area and age group who buy similar plans must pay similar prices. Trump has been trying to undo the law since taking office. He has promised a replacement plan for nearly four years that he has never produced.

As coronavirus cases reached a high June 25, the Trump administration filed a brief in the Supreme Court arguing that the entire law, including its coverage guarantee for patients with preexisting conditions, “must fall.” If the court strikes down the law, as Trump is asking, patients with preexisting conditions seeking individual insurance plans would be left exposed. Insurers could once again deny them coverage, sell them junk plans with meager benefits or charge them exorbitant prices.

“Where’s Hunter? They don’t call him out, where’s Hunter? Where’s Hunter? Is Hunter in the crowd? They don’t call him out. They don’t call him out on where’s Hunter?”

Trump and his allies, especially Rudolph W. Giuliani, for more than a year have been trying to link Biden to corruption allegations involving Ukraine. Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company called Burisma, and the elder Biden handled the Obama administration’s Ukraine portfolio as vice president.

The thrust of Trump’s allegations is that Biden acted improperly by asking the Ukrainians to fire a prosecutor who Trump claims was investigating his son. That’s a false premise. Hunter Biden was never under investigation in Ukraine. In fact, Joe Biden, in coordination with European allies, was pushing to sack the prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, because Shokin was not pursuing corruption cases, including a probe into the owner of Burisma.

We have been fact-checking Trump’s claims since May 2019, and the basic facts debunking them have not changed, though in recent weeks, Trump has tried to make hay out of the discovery of a laptop that allegedly belonged to Hunter Biden, something heavily promoted by Giuliani.

“Joe Biden has pledged to open borders. … If you don’t have borders, you don’t have a country. … This would trigger a tsunami of illegal immigration from every corner, all over the world.”

Trump routinely mischaracterizes Biden’s stances on immigration. Biden does not support “open borders” and has said he does not support Democratic proposals to decriminalize the act of crossing the border with no authorization. Trump says Biden is proposing a more than “700 percent” increase in refugee admissions, but in fact Biden’s proposal is merely to restore refugee admissions to regular levels after Trump imposed caps that brought them down to almost nothing.

Trump says Biden would stop deportations and detention. But Biden has said he would impose only a 100-day moratorium on deportations and end “prolonged” detention for immigrants. Trump says Biden “wants to end the prosecution of illegal border crossers,” but that’s false, too. Biden has said he would return to the Obama-era policy of prioritizing gang members and those convicted of violent crimes — a policy Trump rescinded shortly before he began to separate families at the border.

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