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The biggest Pinocchios of 2021

The Fact Checker tackled some of the most Pinocchio-worthy claims of 2021. Here are a few you should know. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

It’s time for our roundup of the biggest Pinocchios of the year.

We have to admit we had been hoping that for the first time since 2014, Donald Trump would not make this roundup. “This may be Trump’s last appearance on this annual list,” we optimistically wrote a year ago. “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.”

We kept our promise — we fact-checked him rarely — but his continuing lies about the election he decisively lost left us no choice but to reserve yet another spot for him. This marks a repeat appearance for this claim, as we had also put his false claims about the election on the list last year. Moreover, the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol was an extension of Trump’s months-long campaign to delegitimize potential defeat. Astonishingly, the initial response by many Republicans — a moment of clarity and condemnation — soon gave way to Trump subservience yet again.

In compiling this list, which has no particular order, 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.

Continuing election lies

On Jan. 2, Trump called fellow Republican Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state, and over the course of an hour spouted false claims in a vain effort to “find” enough votes to overturn his defeat in the state. President Biden’s inauguration 18 days later did not stop Trump from continuing his effort, such as demands for new audits, to sow suspicion and mistrust among his supporters about the presidential election — or to ensure supporters are in place in key election roles if he decides to run again in 2024. In his speeches, Trump often focuses on swing states that he narrowly lost. He especially likes to overwhelm his listeners with details — usually irrelevant details — to leave an impression of an election system that is highly suspicious and fraudulent. Polls show Trump’s campaign of election falsehoods is having an effect, undermining Americans’ faith that votes will be counted correctly.

Jan. 6 falsehoods

The shocking Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters was followed quickly by false claims by Republicans to diminish the scope of the attack or deflect blame. Within hours, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and others blamed antifa forces for engineering the assault, despite no evidence. Trump falsely claimed that he “requested” 10,000 troops to protect the Capitol but that the request was rejected by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). (All he did was throw out a big number in a conversation with aides, based on an inflated idea that 1 million people would show up for his rally.) Meanwhile, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) falsely said Pelosi denied a request for National Guard troops. (Public testimony showed Pelosi did not even hear about the request until two days later.) Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) claimed, based on false social media reports, that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) had offered a “hoax” about her experience during the Capitol Hill riot.

Georgia’s new law ends voting hours early so working people can’t cast their vote.”

Biden repeatedly condemned a new Georgia election law that imposed new restrictions on voting, but one of his complaints was simply false: “It ends voting hours early so working people can’t cast their vote after their shift is over.” Many listeners might assume he was talking about voting on Election Day. But Election Day hours were not changed. The law did make some changes to early voting. But experts say the net effect of the new early-voting rules was to expand the opportunities to vote for most Georgians, not limit them.

In my race in 2018, they found 95,000 ballots after election night.

Sometimes politicians keep repeating what we call zombie claims. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) for years has been alleging large-scale violations in Florida’s 2018 election but has never coughed up the proof. He says 95,000 votes were found illegally after the polls closed in 2018. But the votes were always there and officials counted them before the legal deadline. Florida officials — at agencies led by Scott appointees — investigated his claims while he was governor and produced no evidence to support his flimsy and inflammatory charges.

Viral conspiracy claims about Biden

With a snip and clip, along with misleading labeling, opponents of Biden flooded social media with false claims. Three especially caught our attention. First, a viral tweet claimed that on Inauguration Day, “someone in Biden’s earpiece told him to salute the Marines, and Biden just repeated the words ‘salute the Marines,’ because he is so used to just repeating what comes from his earpiece.” (Actually, Biden remarked, “Good-looking Marines.”) Then, on Fox News, host Tucker Carlson used a 2015 clip of then-Vice President Biden to claim Biden had some sort of secret plan to flood the United States with undocumented immigrants and accomplish what Carlson called “the great replacement” — what he describes as “the replacement of legacy Americans with more obedient people from faraway countries.” But Carlson had snipped just half a minute from a six-minute Biden riff at a 2015 conference. The full remarks showed Biden was saying the opposite of what Carlson claimed. Finally, Biden was not silenced by mysterious aides with a “mute” button, despite energetic efforts by the Republican National Committee and Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho) to spread this rumor.

Officials are handing out Kamala Harris’s book to migrants

The New York Post reported that a children’s picture book written by Vice President Harris was being handed out in “welcome kits” to young migrants at a shelter in Long Beach, Calif. Fox News, which is owned by the same family as the New York Post, then amplified the story with its own version of the article. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel ran with these reports and posted critical tweets. But it turns out a single copy of the book, “Superheroes Are Everywhere,” was donated by a member of the community. The New York Post withdrew its story after our fact check and the reporter resigned, tweeting she was ordered to write it.

Biden’s Flights of Fancy

When the president veers from his prepared texts, we often end up with what we call a Biden original — an assertion with specific numbers that appears to have no source, such as a report in an academic journal or from a think tank, a congressional hearing or an expert’s speech. During the year, we documented cases in which the president made puzzling statements for which there was no factual basis. He said that within 15 years, “every single” hospital bed would be filled with Alzheimer’s patients. Experts were stumped by this statement and our calculations show that in 2040 there would still be plenty of hospital beds even with the anticipated increase in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Biden repeatedly said he has “traveled 17,000 miles with” Chinese leader Xi Jinping, a figure that could not be verified and made little sense. He said that the Second Amendment bars cannon ownership, which is flat wrong. He also falsely claimed that ending a minor tax break for racehorse owners would raise enough money — $9 billion — to cover free community college.

Ron Johnson’s campaign of vaccine misinformation

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) kept us busy this year with false or misleading claims about coronavirus vaccines. He said natural immunity is as strong if not stronger than vaccinated immunity. (Studies also show that the mRNA vaccines could better protect against new coronavirus variants than natural immunity.) He said there are serious side effects, including death. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said at the time of our fact checks that “available clinical information, including death certificates, autopsy, and medical records, has not established a causal link to COVID-19 vaccines,” and now, based on further evidence, says, “A review of reports indicates a causal relationship between the J&J/Janssen COVID-19 Vaccine and TTS, a rare and serious adverse event — that causes blood clots with low platelets — which has caused or directly contributed to six confirmed deaths.” But Johnson said more than 5,200 deaths had been reported in the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System. (That’s a misuse of this data.)

Glenn Youngkin took over a chain of dental clinics that performed unnecessary procedures on children.”

In his losing effort to regain the Virginia governorship, Terry McAuliffe (D) made flat-out false claims about his rival’s business record in a debate and a campaign ad. Digging through corporate documents, we discovered that not only was Youngkin not part of the original transaction at his firm, Carlyle Group, but Carlyle did not own or manage the clinics; it merely helped fund the deal with loans. After problems at the clinics were exposed and the company failed to make good on its loans, in 2010 (before Youngkin became chief operating officer), the loans were renegotiated to give Carlyle a relatively small equity stake. Notably, in 2013, McAuliffe also earned a Biggest Pinocchio of the Year for a similar invented claim about his opponent during his successful run for governor.

Only 11 percent of the money being wasted goes to real infrastructure.

Despite his experience in the real estate business, Trump repeatedly failed to win approval of an infrastructure deal during his presidency. The $550 billion bipartisan package negotiated and signed by Biden has left Trump so disgruntled that he dismisses it as an “unfrastructure deal” in which only 11 percent of the spending goes to “real infrastructure.” That’s made-up math. More than one-third of the bill would qualify as infrastructure under the standards used by Trump during his presidency. But many more elements could be considered infrastructure, bringing the percentage as high as 80 percent.

Special hypocrisy award

In July, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) violated her own mask order, enacted in response to the delta variant of the coronavirus, while attending a reception after a wedding at which she officiated. A video emerged that clearly shows she was seated at a table, when the meal is over, despite her own mask mandate that said masks are not required indoors in these circumstances only when “actively eating or drinking.” Rather than admit a mistake, she defended herself with partisan-laced spin and innuendo about “disinformation,” making false accusations about the reporter who exposed her actions. (She lifted the order on Nov. 22, shortly before the omicron variant emerged.)

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