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Biden’s repeated claim he’s ‘traveled 17,000 miles with’ Xi Jinping

Despite extensive meetings and multiple diplomatic, President Biden’s claim he “traveled 17,000 miles with” President Xi can’t be verified. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)
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“My point was that when I came back from meeting with him and traveling 17,000 miles with him when I was vice president and he was the vice president — that’s how I got to know him so well.”

— President Biden, remarks during a town hall on CNN, Feb. 16, 2021

“I had 24-25 hours of private meetings with him when I was vice president, traveled 17,000 miles with him. I know him pretty well.”

— Biden, in an interview with Norah O’Donnell of CBS News, Feb. 7

“I’ve spent more time with Xi Jinping, at least before we got out, than any world leader has. I traveled 17,000 miles with him, the president of China. … we traveled around the world together, in the United States and China.”

— Biden, at a campaign rally in Sparks High School, Nevada, Jan. 10, 2020

During his recent town hall on CNN, President Biden made a number of mistaken claims and assertions. He suggested racehorse owners receive tax breaks worth $9 billion, almost enough to pay for free attendance at community college — a claim that left tax experts scratching their heads. He said that the $7.25 minimum wage set in 2009 would be worth $20 if indexed for inflation, a statement that only makes sense if you are measuring from 1968. He wrongly stated that “vast majority” of undocumented immigrants were not Hispanic.

We became interested in the claim that he had “traveled 17,000 miles” with Chinese President Xi Jinping. We had first noticed it when the president was interviewed by Norah O’Donnell but it seemed like a typical Biden malaprop. After, it did not make much sense because world leaders do not often travel together. But he then said it again. Researching the matter, we discovered he had also used the same phrase during the presidential election campaign — and the same number even earlier than that.

When a politician says the same thing at least three times, it cannot be shrugged off as a verbal stumble. What is Biden talking about?

The Facts

Biden is justifiably proud of his long relationships with many world leaders. He came into office with a list of overseas contacts unmatched by any predecessor since George H.W. Bush, also a former two-term vice president. Before being elected vice president, Biden was chair or ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for more than two decades.

During the Obama administration, it became clear that Xi, then the vice president, was in line to become the next leader of China. He was largely a mystery to U.S. officials, so Biden was assigned the task of getting to know him.

In 2011, Biden traveled to China and over the course of three days met with Xi in various settings. They had a bilateral meeting and formal dinner in Beijing on Aug. 18, co-hosted a business dialogue on Aug. 19 and then visited the city of Chengdu in Sichuan province, along with a high school about 50 miles away in an area where a 2008 earthquake had left 86,000 people dead or missing. They also had a lengthy dinner together in Chengdu. Afterward, Biden flew on to Mongolia.

In 2012, Xi visited the United States. On Feb. 14, Biden and Xi gathered at the White House for meetings, including with President Barack Obama, had lunch at the State Department, conducted a business roundtable and finally had dinner at the vice president’s residence at the Naval Observatory. Xi then traveled elsewhere in the United States, including Iowa, before arriving in Los Angeles. Biden flew to Los Angeles to meet Xi there on Feb. 17; they had dinner, among other events.

Biden returned to China in 2013, where he held another five hours of meetings with Xi. Biden also met Xi when he arrived in Washington on his first state visit as Chinese president in 2015.

That’s certainly an impressive amount of face time with Xi. But Biden’s mileage number has kept us puzzling till our puzzler was sore.

As far as we could tell, the only time Biden and Xi appear to have traveled together was when they visited Qingchengshan High School in Dujiangyan. In theory, one could add in the trip from Beijing to Chengdu, a distance of about 1,000 miles. But when Xi came to the United States, Biden and Xi did not even follow a parallel route to Los Angeles.

We found a clue about what Biden was trying to say when we searched as many transcript archives as we could and found a statement Biden made at a Hillary Clinton campaign event on Nov. 4, 2016: “Because the former president of China and President Obama seven years ago thought we should get to know one another, I traveled 17,000 miles through his country and our country over nine days.”

A White House official conceded that Biden’s line of “traveling with” Xi is not accurate. “This was a reference to the total travel back and forth — both internally in the U.S. and China, and as well as internationally — for meetings they held together,” he said. “Some travel was in parallel, some was separately to joint destinations.”

Try as we could, however, we still could not get the travel to add up to 17,000 miles.

If you take Biden’s 2016 formulation of internal travel in China and the United States, here are the numbers.

  • The flight distance from Beijing to Chengdu: 950 miles
  • The round trip drive between Chengdu and Dujiangyan: 100 miles
  • The flight distance from Washington to Los Angeles: 2,300 miles

That’s only about 3,300 miles. It grows to 5,600 if you decide to add in Biden’s return flight from L.A. That’s still far short of 17,000 miles.

Meanwhile, the flight distance from Washington to Beijing is 6,900 miles, or about 14,000 miles round trip. So adding in Biden’s two trips to see Xi would add 28,000 miles to the total.

The White House did not offer an explanation for how Biden calculated 17,000 miles. But clearly it’s a number he deems important enough to repeat often.

We sought a comment from the Chinese embassy but did not get a response.

The Pinocchio Test

Some readers may object that this is inconsequential. Biden, one might argue, is using the phrase of “traveling together” in a more expansive sense of “flying to meet each other in various places.” Moreover, his broader point is undisputed — that he’s already spent an unusually large amount of time with Xi for someone who is just now taking office.

So Biden’s claim is not completely from whole cloth. He did meet Xi in various cities in China and United States, in some cases traveling substantial distances.

But numbers are numbers. Biden is using a figure that cannot be verified in a misleading way. He correctly notes he spent hours in private talks with Xi, including outside the capital cities, on different occasions. Those are substantial bragging rights — which makes his apparent need to gild the lily with an invented figure so puzzling.

The president earns Three Pinocchios.

Three Pinocchios

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