In 2019, Trump took seven of the 13 spots. He earned six spots in 2018 and 2017, five in 2016 and three in 2015. Even so, we cheated a bit because in some cases Trump’s false claims on a particular subject were so numerous and varied that we created all-around categories.
The explosion of false and misleading statements from Trump during his presidency is well documented in our database. We have struggled to keep up with his torrent of falsehoods during the final weeks of the campaign, when he barnstormed the country making 600 to 700 false or misleading claims a week. The next update will show he crossed the 25,000 mark by mid-October.
So in this remarkable year, we have given up trying to keep Trump to about half of the list. In 2020, Trump will earn seven of 10 spots, with three all-around categories — his false claims about the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. election and the violence that erupted after the death of George Floyd in police custody. President-elect Joe Biden earns two spots, while the last slot goes to a GOP hopeful in a Senate race.
Nevertheless, this may be Trump’s last appearance on this annual list. As of Jan. 21, we will set a high bar for fact-checking his statements. He will be a defeated ex-president, and we tend to focus on claims made by people in power. In other words, we hope to ignore him and concentrate on people who really matter in national policy debates.
In compiling this list, we mostly focused on claims that earned Four Pinocchios during the year. To keep it simple, in some cases, we have shortened or paraphrased the quotes in the headlines. To read the full column, click on the link embedded in the quote. The all-around categories have links within the summaries.
We generally do not list the Pinocchios of the Year in any particular order, but the collection of coronavirus and election claims are especially consequential. The president’s statements affected both the health of U.S. citizens and American democracy and will undoubtedly influence how historians assess his performance as president.
A global pandemic would be a challenge for any U.S. president. But through his constant lies about the crisis, Trump managed to consistently make the situation worse for the United States. He minimized the danger at first, dismissing the novel coronavirus as less serious than the seasonal flu and something that would go away on its own. He touted bogus cures and quick fixes. He oversold achievements, such as falsely claiming that he led the world in a China ban and that U.S. testing for the virus was on track. He blamed others, falsely saying, for instance, that President Barack Obama bungled the swine flu pandemic and left behind an “empty cupboard” of ventilators. He invented a fairy tale about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi “dancing” in the streets of Chinatown and attacked Anthony S. Fauci, the renowned director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, with bogus complaints. He also repeatedly lowballed the death count, falsely claiming he saved millions of lives. He often wrongly said 85 percent of mask-wearers catch the virus — insisting it was true even after he was corrected. And this is only scratching the surface of his falsehoods.
Throughout 2020, Trump seeded the ground for challenging the presidential election results with bogus claims of election fraud. More than 200 times, he warned about the alleged dangers of mail-in voting. (His own administration highlighted how his false claims on voting-by-mail were almost identical to the Russian propaganda being spread online to destabilize U.S. politics.) In his campaign rallies, Trump sprinkled his speeches with tall tales about election malfeasance. So when Biden decisively defeated him in the 2020 election, the president and his allies engaged in a scorched-earth effort to challenge the vote count in key swing states. His claims were repeatedly tossed out of court by judges and denied by election officials, but Trump has kept repeating the false claims, even after the electoral college affirmed Biden’s win. Trump still refuses to concede. These lies may have long-term consequences, undermining Americans’ faith that votes will be correctly counted.
Bogus violence claims
The killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis by police led to a national reckoning on race. But Trump saw the incident as a way to gain an electoral edge, so he repeatedly hyped claims about “professional anarchists, violent mobs, or, arsonists, looters, criminals, rider rioters, antifa and others.” antifa is a moniker, not a single group with a clear organizational structure or leader, and no cases could be found in which someone who self-identifies as antifa led violent acts at protests across the country. The White House tweeted (and later deleted) a 58-second video that employed out-of-context social clips to lob unproven accusations and create a misleading impression of what has happened during the Floyd protests. Trump himself tweeted an outrageous conspiracy theory about a Buffalo man injured by police. He also falsely claimed that Obama never tried to tackle the problem of police brutality during his presidency. And he repeatedly — and falsely — said that Biden supported efforts to defund police.
In one of the strangest tall tales, Biden three times asserted that he had the “great honor” of being arrested with the U.N. ambassador on the streets of Soweto trying to get to see Nelson Mandela “on Robbens Island.” Never mind that Soweto, a township near Johannesburg, is nearly 900 miles from Robben — not Robbens — Island, which is off the coast of Cape Town. No one knew what Biden was talking about, including Andrew Young, the former ambassador. Eventually Biden explained he was separated from Black colleagues at the airport. That’s not an arrest.
Trump is not a modest man. More than 30 times, he declared he has done more for Black people than any other president — or, he might generously concede, since Abraham Lincoln. Historians scoffed at his claim, saying that Lyndon B. Johnson, who signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, is clearly the recent president who had the most lasting impact on the lives of Black Americans. Many other presidents were also ranked higher than Trump.
Some dozen times, Trump insinuated that MSNBC anchor Joe Scarborough might have murdered a congressional aide. This was an old claim, debunked by The Washington Post in 2017. But Trump often smears those who challenge him. He has a long-running feud with the “Morning Joe” husband-and-wife team of Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski. Still, even after four years of Trump, it remains astounding to see the president make a thinly veiled murder accusation devoid of evidence.
Trump understands little about health-care policy. But he does understand that the Affordable Care Act’s protections for people with preexisting health conditions are highly popular. So in every speech, he includes this line, even though it is directly contradicted by the policies his administration has pursued, including asking the Supreme Court to strike down the entire ACA, thus ending the guarantee for patients with preexisting conditions. Few claims better illustrate the gap between Trump’s words and actions.
Technically Trump did not say this, but he retweeted a video — proclaiming “My great honor!!!” — that was narrated by Richard Grenell, a longtime spinmeister and booster of the president. The video makes the provocative claim that Trump — whose administration is often criticized by LGBTQ rights advocates as anti-gay — is actually the most “pro-gay” president in U.S. history. The core of the video is actually a lengthy attack on Biden as anti-LGBTQ. The video is a stew of misleading timelines, out-of-context quotes and claims easily debunked — which was typical of Trump campaign material.
There cannot be an election without Democrats making bogus claims about an alleged GOP attack on Social Security. The Biden campaign followed this technique when it asserted that Trump had a “plan” to eliminate the payroll tax that funds Social Security. Trump certainly made confusing comments before he reiterated that any diversion for a payroll tax holiday would come out of general funds. But that did not stop Democrats from ginning up a letter from the chief actuary of Social Security to estimate the impact of a plan that did not exist — which the Biden campaign weaponized into attack ads and the candidate repeated on the campaign trail.
Bryant “Corky” Messner, a first-time candidate who unsuccessfully challenged Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), during his campaign touted an organization, the Messner Foundation, which he said selects low-income students every year to receive college scholarships. But tax records examined by The Fact Checker showed that in the first 10 years of the foundation’s existence, only one student received a scholarship from Messner’s foundation — and even more money was given to an elite private school that Messner’s sons were attending at the time. Yet for years Messner and the foundation have suggested that many students had been the recipients of funds.
Send us facts to check by filling out this form
Sign up for The Fact Checker weekly newsletter
The Fact Checker is a verified signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network code of principles